Ted Kennedy Jr. — Following his Calling

Ted Kennedy Jr.The Kennedy name is one of the most recognized families in the world. Generations of historic successes and tragic lows. One theme continues, that of public service, be it politics or nonprofit leadership. One family member who is living up to his heritage is Ted Kennedy Jr., son of Senator Ted Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy.

Having a decades long career as an attorney, Kennedy began with a specialization in disability issues, opened his own firm and, later, joined the Health Care and Life Sciences practice at Epstein Becker Green where he advises health care industry stakeholders on critical policy issues.

During his law career, Kennedy also served as a Connecticut State Senator. He became Chair of the Environment Committee, Co-Chair of the Public Health Committee, and Deputy Majority Leader for the Democratic Caucus. He authored and led successful passage of over 70 laws expanding environmental protection, disability rights, home and community-based care, value-based purchasing, provider network reforms and price transparency and mental health care.

A pediatric bone cancer survivor and amputee, Kennedy has been an active leader in the movement to expand opportunities for persons with disabilities. In June 2017, Kennedy was elected Chair of the Board of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), a civil rights and public policy organizations dedicated to social reform and equal rights for people with disabilities. He also advises employers on best practices and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of AAPD’s signature programs is the Disability Equality Index (DEI), which scores and tracks businesses on their disability employment, accommodation policies and socially responsible corporate practices.

ABILITY’s George Kaplan chatted by Zoom with Kennedy and there was an interesting twist to their introduction.

George Kaplan: Not to throw you a curveball, but this is not actually the first time we’ve spoken. When I was 18 and a new amputee, a family member somehow got you on the phone, and you gave me words of encouragement. That phone call meant a lot to me.

Ted’s eyes crinkled behind his glasses looking into the video of George, now 12 years older, and he smiled.

Ted Kennedy Jr.: Glad to see you’re doing well.

Kaplan: My family got hold of you, and you actually talked me through being an amputee. I’m also an osteosarcoma survivor as well. You really gave me words of encouragement, and I held on to that for a long time. And I’ll never forget that phone call. I’m sure you remember. (laughs)

Kennedy: Where did you grow up, George?

Kaplan: I’m from Miami originally.

Kennedy: It’s great to see you. And I’m so pleased to know you’re now leading a productive, happy life.

Kaplan: Yeah, it’s totally possible for all of us, and you showed me. Hopefully, that’s something I can pass on as well.

Kennedy: Well, thank you, George. That’s very kind of you. I appreciate that.

Kaplan: Can we start with talking about the Disability Equality Index (DEI).

Kennedy: Well, the Disability Equality Index is a joint project between DisabilityIN and AAPD to benchmark and measure corporate performance in the area of economic independence and job creation and job placement of people with disabilities.

Ted Kennedy Jr., Chad Jerdee, Jenny Lay-Flurrie and Jill Houghton
Ted Kennedy Jr., Chad Jerdee, Jenny Lay-Flurrie and Jill Houghton from DisabilityIN

As you may know, we just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And while there’s been a lot of progress that has been made since 1990, in so far as a lot of architectural barriers have been eliminated and removed, people with disabilities have more access to public places and restaurants and movie theaters and so forth.

One of the areas that we have not realized, our goal of full equality, is in the area of employment and economic independence–meaning that the majority–some statistics say about two thirds of people with disabilities who are able and willing to work can’t get a job. And it’s not because they can’t do the job. It’s because of outdated stereotypes and assumptions on the part of employers that somebody with the disability can’t possibly be as productive as an able-bodied person. Or it’s just going to cost too much to accommodate the person. Or they’re going to drive up our health care costs.

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And we know that’s just not true. So, one of the things that DisabilityIN and AAPD sought to do was to develop best practices–what are corporate best practices with regard to recruiting and hiring, promoting people with disabilities across an enterprise. But, you know, there was no way at the time–this is five or six years ago–to really measure corporate for performance. So, if you can’t measure something, people are not going to give it the full attention.

Now, we can say that we have the leading corporate benchmarking tool for disability, equality and inclusion. And we have over two hundred and fifty participants, nearly two hundred Fortune 500 companies. I’m the co-chair of the DEI as well as board chair of AAPD, and I’m not going to stop until we get each and every member of the Fortune 500 and beyond to make disability, inclusion and disability hiring a strategic corporate priority.

So, that’s why I’m so excited about the DEI–because we now have a tool. It’s been vetted by hundreds of companies, international and national companies, as the best way to measure corporate performance. And we’re growing very rapidly. And so, I think that that’s one way, honestly, to lead to better job creation for people with disabilities. Because if companies feel like no one is paying attention to exactly what they’re doing, they’re not going to be as committed.

And there have been many organizations, the National Disability Leadership Alliance, for example–not just AAPD. We have many national disability organizations who are a part of this effort to call on corporate America to do more.

And the effort to establish disability inclusion as the next chapter of corporate social responsibility and ESG ( Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing. We’ve started out small with some of the leading companies who actually–As you know at ABILITY Magazine, there are a lot of companies who for years have been in the forefront of hiring and recognizing the value that people with disabilities can bring to their organization.

Senator Cory Booker and Ted Kennedy, Jr.
Senator Cory Booker receiving an AAPD award from Ted Kennedy, Jr.

So, we want to highlight and showcase and champion those companies that are–on their own have made this commitment with the hope that other companies can learn from them and follow in their steps. So, we started off with a handful of companies the first year. For example, we started with United Airlines and American Airlines. Once we announced these best companies in America for people with disabilities, other airlines were saying, “Wait a second. What are they doing that we’re not doing?” Or other financial institutions: “How is it that–What are they doing?” and “How can we make sure that next year we’re also because we want to be recognized? And we don’t want to be at the tail end of the pack in terms of advancing equality for everyone?” because no one wants to be known as a company that’s not sympathetic and cognizant of the needs and rights and opportunities for people with disabilities.

So we’re growing very rapidly, and I’m very excited about it. And we’re evolving. We’re going to, you know, we’re going international next year because there’s a huge demand for us to implement the DEI globally. And I’m just very excited to be a part of it.

Kaplan: You’ve been working with all Fortune 500 companies. What do you think small businesses can do? What steps can they do to make their businesses and their hiring practices more inclusive?

Kennedy: Well, that’s a good question. Most of the early adopters, most of the companies that are participating are recognized by the DEI, are large publicly traded companies, hospital organizations and others, whereas we know a lot of the hiring comes as a result of small business. I think that small businesses can learn about the ways to attract and hire people with disabilities. I think they do hire friends, acquaintances, family members, etc. They know that people with disabilities can be productive employees. So, they may not need as much encouragement or education as, say, a larger company.

Kaplan: What benefits do you believe that persons with disabilities bring to a company?

Kennedy: Well, I think first and foremost, disability inclusion needs to be a part of the whole national dialogue on diversity and inclusion.

We’re going through. Kind of a revolution in our country right now. I mean, I’m not just talking about what’s happening, the recent events in Washington, DC. People are wondering to a much greater degree (about) the companies that they patronize, who they do business with, where they buy their toothpaste, what airline they fly, where they do their banking, where they go grocery shopping. People with disabilities want to know that the businesses that they patronize share their vision for full equality and justice for people with disabilities. So, there’s a there’s a huge market there. I mean, when you talk about–we don’t really normally speak of people with disabilities being a huge market, but between people with disabilities and their families, it’s 60, 70 million people.

So it’s not some marginal group of people. These are individuals between their families and friends and individuals with disabilities themselves have a lot of market power and are much more socially aware.

They’re much more engaged now and organized politically, socially. They’re participating more in voting and running for office themselves, in advocacy and also as consumers. So, I think that the value that people can bring to a company is there. We know that diversity in companies actually improves corporate performance. I’m not just talking about disability and diversity. I’m talking about racial, ethnic, gender diversity.

If you looked at corporate boards 20 years ago, it was a bunch of old white men sitting around a table. You can’t operate a business today with a corporate board that’s all white men. You know that having a diverse board, having a diverse workforce actually increases your productivity and also is reflective of the customers that you serve.

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And so, I think that what we’re doing is kind of piggybacking off of other movements that have gone before us. Whether it’s racial equality or racial representation on corporate boards. And I’m hoping that in years from now we’ll look back and wonder why more people with disabilities are not serving on corporate boards and more leadership positions.

It’s not really surprising. You know for years and years, not a lot was really expected of people with disabilities. In fact, if you were a student with a disability or a young person, there were not really a lot of expectations because it was just assumed that you were an object of charity; you were going to be taking care of. You were going to be on state assistance.

You could never work. It was kind of a self-fulfilling feedback loop where a lot of young people with disabilities never imagined themselves as being a corporate CEO or a member of a board or in a leadership position. Do you see? So, because there were not very many leaders out there, political leaders or corporate leaders or other people in our community that young people with disabilities could look to and say, my goodness, if they can do it, I can do it, too.

So, it’s going to take time. And the more people with disabilities are viewed in senior level positions and leading successful lives, having a family, having their own apartment, supporting themselves, running for office, all the things that people can do to advance their lot, that’s going to take time. We believe that a diverse workforce is a stronger workforce and that companies need to do a better job at integrating and recruiting people, not just people with disabilities, but people from across the spectrum of society.

Kaplan: Yes, people do tend to forget that disability should be included in their diversity plan. It tends to get overlooked all the time. Going back to the DEI, is there a cost?

Kennedy: The cost is a real nominal cost. In fact, it’s six hundred dollars a year. We’ve been told that’s a ridiculously low cost to ask a Fortune 500 company to be able to participate in the DEI. And it doesn’t even really cover the expenses that we have and trying to develop the survey tools and publish and all the work that goes into it.

But we didn’t want it to be a situation where people were– it was perceived that you had to pay into something in order to get a score. We wanted to keep it low enough that even a smaller business could participate. And we didn’t want the six hundred dollars to be an excuse for somebody not participating in the DEI.

Kaplan: So we had the 30th anniversary of the ADA. What more would you like to see in the coming years?

Ali Stroker and Ted Kennedy Jr. at the 2018 AAPD Gala
Ali Stroker and Ted Kennedy Jr. at the 2018 AAPD Gala

Kennedy: Well, I think that as the board chair of AAPD, the American Association of People with Disabilities, as one of the leading civil rights public policy organizations that is dedicated to social reform, equality and independence of people with disabilities. We want to expand political participation. What I mean by that is in voting, in people running for office, not just federal office, but in your local school, school board or your city council.

We are trying to address transportation, which is a major problem for people with disabilities: visual disabilities, mental and emotional disabilities, mobility impairments and so forth, into that end. We’re working with major transportation centers to encourage them to have more wheelchair accessible vehicles. And also what I’m very excited about is something called the “We Will Ride Coalition.” The We Will Ride Coalition is a project of AAPD where we’re working with Toyota, Volkswagen, a number of the other leading automobile manufacturers. So that when they develop autonomous vehicles, these vehicles are fully accessible for people with disabilities.

It’s hard for us to imagine a society, a world in which we don’t get into a car and drive. But believe it or not, probably within the next 10 or 20 years, cars will be driverless. And in the end, it will be transformational for people with disabilities. If you have a visual impairment, mobility impairment, you will not be reliant on other people.

You want to make sure that those vehicles are designed up front and not an afterthought, which frequently happens in the area of disability, where we have technologies that are designed, and then they realize it’s inaccessible. So, I give credit to the automobile manufacturers who are now working with leading disability advocates to ensure that disability, inclusion and accessibility are part of the initial design because we know then that it’s not going to be an additional cost if it’s incorporated into the initial design of a vehicle.

We also are working on the issue of A.I. and making sure that artificial intelligence and how that’s developed, particularly in the job recruiting area. You may know right now–I don’t know whether you’ve applied for a job recently–But when you apply for a job, chances are that your resume is going to be scanned and read and either accepted or rejected by a computer. And for numerous reasons, that A.I. technology that is employed now by many companies around the world–By the time they get a thousand resumes, they’re trying to whittle it down to 10 or 20 of the best candidates. And these computer programs can have implicit bias in the development of these algorithms, and AI technologies can very easily disfavor people with disabilities and impermissibly screen them out before they’ve even had a chance to interview for a job.

Kaplan: I’ve been rejected by robots in my time. I know we’re not doing that with the ABILITY Job Fair. And that’s actually how I’m here talking to you today because I was scouted through ABILITY’s process. If you’re not familiar, it’s the world’s first accessible virtual job fair. It has a lot of accessible features like, live transcription, screen reader friendly and sign language interpreters, plus you can even leave a video to any of the recruiters up to 2 hours after the event closes. That’s how I connected with ABILITY.

Kennedy: That’s awesome.

Kaplan: Yeah. I’ll have to get you more information. It’s a really great system that I’m a fan of myself. I want to go a little bit more personal with you, especially regarding this pandemic. We’re both survivors of osteosarcoma and unfortunately are dealing with low immunity. What would you say to people that aren’t wearing a mask?

Kennedy: Well, I think obviously people with pre-existing health conditions and compromised immunity are especially threatened by the coronavirus.

It’s difficult to understand, but there are still a number of places, a number of individuals where people are resisting wearing a mask. I personally do not come across a lot of that myself. Where I live in Connecticut, most people abide by public health norms and public health directives. But I think that it’s too bad that some people feel that they’re right not to wear a mask supersedes the needs of individuals with compromised immunity.

Kaplan: It really is unfortunate. In 2018 you decided not to seek re-election to the state Senate. I know a lot of people expected you to run for governor. What made you take a step away from politics? And do you foresee returning?

Kennedy: I loved serving in the in the Connecticut General Assembly. You know, I had always thought about running for office, of course, growing up in my family. Where everyone thinks about it in their lives just because it’s kind of what members of my family have been doing for generations. So, in that way, it’s kind of logical. But I was sort of hesitant at first to run for office, primarily, because my children were young.

And I thought it’s very hard to be an elected official today and have young children at home and be a good parent. It’s very hard because these jobs, these political jobs, are seven days a week. It’s many nights. There are two or three dinners that you have to go to. It’s not a very family friendly occupation.

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I loved my job in the Connecticut General Assembly. I felt like a citizen legislator; it was really exciting. I was very productive and led passage and wrote over 70 new (bills) that were signed into law. I loved the interacting with people, I really enjoyed it.

You were asking why I’m not going to run for re-election. I’m very concerned about watching my 30 or 40 years of work advocating for civil rights for people with disabilities going down the drain as a result of the changes in Washington, D.C.. I don’t mean to get sort of overly political with you, but there are enormous threats to the hard fought gains, bipartisan gains.

By the way, disability rights has always been a bipartisan issue. Unfortunately, we had an administration in Washington that was threatening our rights. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to double down on my life’s work, which is the equal rights of people with disabilities. So that’s when I decided to accept the position as board chair of AAPD so I could devote myself full time to the cause of my life, which is disability, equality and inclusion.

Kaplan: I know that your leadership and mentoring others is important and yeah, you inspired me. What can young people or millennials do that could further advance and advocate for people with disabilities?

Kennedy: Well, I think people with disabilities, we need to educate ourselves about what our rights are and what the disability movement is all about and encourage them to join a disability organization. People with disabilities do not belong to any kind of organization for people with disabilities.

2017 AAPD Interns with AAPD Board Members
2017 AAPD Interns with AAPD Board Members

So, if you are deaf or you’re blind, you do not belong. What I mean with belong; I mean joining and paying a nominal fee to a national organization who can advocate for you and also fill you in and send you emails about what’s going on in the world of public policy that could impact your life. And so, I think it’s important for people with disabilities to join an organization. Whether you have cerebral palsy, intellectual disability or you have a mobility impairment, there are a lot of organizations. At AAPD we’re a cross disability organization, meaning that we represent all disability groups and organizations.

But there are a lot of very good organizations that represent disabilities, in states and at the federal level. So, I would encourage everyone to join a local organization or state organization or national organization and educate yourself as to what our disability rights are, learn about the disability rights movement, become registered to vote.

I mean, George, it sounds simple, but people with disabilities are not registered to vote in the same proportion as their nondisabled peers. But that’s changing because of REV UP, which is the voting initiative of AAPD.

2018 AAPD interns
2018 AAPD interns

More people with disabilities can register to vote and ask questions of candidates running for office. I’m talking about if you’re running for the mayor of a municipality to have somebody with a disability ask the mayor, “What are you going to do to ensure that there’s affordable, accessible housing? What are you going to do to improve transportation for people with disabilities?” Chances are the person running for mayor has maybe never been asked that question before.

I think a lot of it is just understanding. Pivoting back to the one of the issues that I’m involved with now is the ESG (environment, social and governance) strategy corporate social responsibility, right now it’s important that we join with our corporate partners who share our goals and visions. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the Accenture report getting to equal?

Kaplan: Yes, the report called Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage.

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Kennedy: Great, they found companies that participated in the DEI and those that did not. And they actually looked at their profitability, their total shareholder returns over time. And what did they find? They found that companies that led on disability inclusion actually outperformed their peers and had greater shareholder returns than other companies that chose not to make disability inclusion a top strategic priority. And so, with that report, we then went to the leading institutional investors around the country.

And now we have over 30 of many of the world’s top pension plans who are now using their leverage, using their power as shareholders to call on corporate America to do more. So, the issue is not going away. It’s getting stronger. And I think it’s important for people with disabilities to become aware of the Disability Equality Index, the airlines they fly, the restaurants, and hotels that they patronize. And when they have a good experience, tell the people. I just want you to know that I fly on American Airlines because you’re one of the leading airlines for people with disabilities. And when that happens, organizations know that people are paying attention. You don’t need to be an elected official or a high powered person to make a huge difference.

Kaplan: Right. I don’t feel like I got a conclusive answer, would you ever consider returning to politics and what would you see your role being?

Kennedy: Well in many ways, I am sort of part of a political movement, which is the disability rights movement. I’m not an elected politician, but we are engaged with policy makers at all stages of the government from writing regulations, bills, testifying in different committees, to electing people. My real criteria, personally, is where I think I can make the biggest difference. Where is the biggest bang for the buck? And right now, because of the relationships that I have with many of these pension funds and these financial institutions and corporations, I’m in a good spot to help accelerate the uptake of the DEI and accelerate the advancement of making disability inclusion the next chapter of ESG. So, I’m not ruling anything out, but for right now, that’s what I’m focused on.

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