Pioneering disability rights

July 26 is recognized annually in the United States as National Disability Independence Day. The observance commemorates the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. In this feature, we look back at a story that appeared previously in Notre Dame Magazine. Author Robert Burgdorf Jr. details the pioneering role Notre Dame played in the disability legal rights movement.


Robert Burgdorf Jr.Robert Burgdorf Jr.

When I entered Notre Dame in 1966, I was one of a few students with an observable disability. Polio had left me as a 1-year-old with restricted use and diminished size of my right arm and shoulder. Still, I knew nothing about the legal rights of people with disabilities and had only personal insights into the way society treated us. That was to change in a major way, as Notre Dame would play a pivotal part in the disability legal rights movement and I would become a key agent in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The University’s crucial role began with a seemingly random dinner conversation in the fall of 1971. Then law students at Notre Dame, my fiancée Marcia Pearce ’72J.D. and I were invited by Lyn Leone ’74M.A., an alumna of Saint Mary’s College and graduate student at Notre Dame, to dinner at her house, about three blocks from campus. During the evening, I mentioned that I was seeking a worthwhile project I could put my aspiring legal skills to work on while taking a break from the academic routine of law school. Lyn told us about a lawyer friend of hers who had visited mental health institutions to see if he could identify any residents who did not belong there. When he did, he used the legal process to try to get them out.

I thought this sounded like a great project for a group of law students, so I talked to several friends who were interested. My next step was to find a professor to supervise us.

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Originally published by Notre Dame Magazine at in its Winter 2016-17 issue.