Her Legacy is a Stronger ADA

On July 26, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services. This law had many people behind it, most of who had a disability or had family members with disabilities. It was the leading civil rights legislation for people with disabilities and one of those people was the late, great Cheryl Sensenbrenner. What most people don’t know is the the important role my dear friend Cheryl played in strengthening the ADA through the ADA Amendments Act. As a result, her unyielding passion and determination made our country a more inclusive place for people with disabilities.

To pass any legislation like the ADA or the ADA Amendments Act, leaders in the disability community had to have connections and Cheryl Sensenbrenner had many. To help get a policy or legislation passed, you need to find a link to disability. For Cheryl, one of them was her sister, who was born with down syndrome. Cheryl had her own experiences when she was involved in a car accident. The accident left her partially paralyzed and she walked with braces and crutches. Cheryl’s son, Frank, had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Cheryl was no greenhorn to politics. Her father was the attorney general of Wisconsin at the time of her accident. Long before the ADA, Cheryl knew how to take on a fight and a fighter she was. When she married Jim, who would become a champion for people who had disabilities in Congress, she fit right in as a leader and many members turned to for advice.  

Cheryl never stopped advocating for all people who had disabilities. She testified on the legacy and future of the Americans with Disabilities Act 20 years after its enactment. Prior to the ADA of 1990, Americans faced physical and societal barriers. Cheryl knew this and worked with leaders like Secretary of Education Thomas Perez, along with her husband Jim, a federal representative in Congress from Wisconsin.

At the time the ADA was passed, state laws were ill equipped to protect people who had disabilities. The ADA Amendments Act needed more sponsors from members of Congress. This is where people in the administration leaned on Cheryl to forge the path. She was a force to be reckoned with. When members had second thoughts, leaders sent them to Cheryl.

Cheryl testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee in October of 2007 to give support to what became known as the ADA Amendments Act. This bipartisan bill helped to restore the broad scope of protections in the original ADA, which was extremely important. Damaging court decisions left the interpretation of the definition of disability in the ADA, which was vague. That 2007 hearing cleared the path for a successful bipartisan position and the passing of the ADA Amendments Act, thanks to the tireless work of Cheryl Sensenbrenner and others.

Click here to read part two.

About Madonna Long: Madonna works as a disability advocate to educate policymakers and congressional leaders on disability issues. She is a mother to four children and lives life on her terms, despite a spinal cord injury. Click here to learn more about Madonna.