The Might of Cheryl Sensenbrenner

In my previous blog on the ADA and Cheryl Sensenbrenner, I shared with you the work she and others did to bring about the ADA Amendments Act.

To understand what kind of powerhouse Cheryl was, you need to read her words. Cheryl testified before Congress on July 22, 2010. In her statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, she said:

“I remember fondly the floor vote in June of 2008 when the House voted 405-17 in support of this critical legislation that restored civil rights protections for millions of Americans with epilepsy, diabetes, depression, cancer, and a range of other conditions. I want to start my testimony today by offering my heartfelt thanks to all of the members of this Committee who worked with my husband Jim, Leader Hoyer, and our broad coalition to bring a well-designed bill to President Bush for signature. Watching President Bush sign that legislation in September of 2008 was one of the proudest moments of my time in Washington, and it could not have happened without the bipartisan leadership and support of the members of this Committee.”

Cheryl kept her words strong as her testimony continued. 

“We are here today for a broader purpose than when I last appeared, to celebrate two decades of implementation of the ADA and to reflect on the work that lies ahead of us as a nation to fully realize the vision of that powerful law. In 1990, with tremendous bipartisan support, Congress passed the ADA, and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. During its passage, Congress acknowledged that people with disabilities were extremely disadvantaged socially, economically, vocationally, and educationally— this political powerlessness on account of pervasive discrimination, segregation, and exclusion resulting from stereotypic assumptions not truly indicative of the individual ability of such individuals to participate in, and contribute to, society…’’

Congress’s intention was clear. This great law, the ADA, was meant to stand as the ‘emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities’ against the unfair discrimination that had permeated all aspects of life for people with disabilities for far too long. The law’s broad directive to employers, public transportation systems, public accommodations, as well as other program and service providers (including the private sector) was to stop the unfair treatment of people on the basis of their current, past, or perceived disabilities.”

“Once implemented, the ADA was intended to give all people with disabilities the opportunity for independence and full participation and inclusion in society. And to be sure, in the last 20 years since its passage, we have witnessed an undeniable transformation in our society. Access to public transportation has improved considerably on account of the ADA requirement that all new buses, trains, and accompanying stations be accessible for people with mobility, sensory and other disabilities—there is no question we live in a more accessible society than in 1990 on account of the ADA. Closed-captioning, curb cuts, power-assisted doors, and large print signage—all of these are hallmarks of society post-ADA—of a society more welcoming of and accessible to people with disabilities than in a time past.”

Cheryl Sensenbrenner was all about bringing leaders together. She had intellect, grace and strength to see issues for people who had disabilities through to the end. She was involved in many disability organizations. Cheryl was the chairman and board Member of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). She was a key supporter in placing interns with disabilities in major congressional offices.

When Cheryl testified before Congress on the 20th anniversary of the ADA, she talked about helping interns with disabilities gain positions in congressional offices. She shared how she talked to a coordinator at a congressional office about a student. She suggested that a stellar student from Gallaudet University, who was deaf and needed a sign language interpreter to perform her duties. The coordinator of that office and said to Cheryl, “What would a deaf person be able to do in a congressional office?” Cheryl replied, “A deaf person can do any whatever anyone else can do any congressional office as long as they are provided with reasonable accommodations.”

As an ADA sponsor and friend to Cheryl Sensenbrenner, Tony Coelho, had many things to say about her: “Cheryl became the key role in working with the Republicans in the house, she aggressively and responsibly insisted on talking to the members herself. Cheryl was clearly the key to passing the ADA Amendments Act. She was a crucial part of our success in that act.”

Andy Imparato, former AAPD CEO and longtime friend of Cheryl, said:  “Cheryl sent handwritten notes to members of Congress who she had known for years. She encouraged them to co-sponsor what became the ADA Amendments Act, a critical law that restored civil rights protections to millions of Americans with disabilities in 2008. Cheryl also testified in support of the law, and her leadership made a huge difference.  She also invested countless hours mentoring AAPD’s emerging leader interns and helping AAPD build relationships with funders. I will always be grateful for her leadership, her passion, her generosity, and her huge heart.”

Cheryl passed away on June 15, 2020. She is very much missed by not only me as her friend, but the thousands of people across this world she impacted.

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.