About the Author
“My adult life has been peppered with moments of intense incredulity, in which I am unable to fathom quite how I came to be where I find myself, but have to smile, somewhat bewilderedly and not forgetting the bad times and defeats, at my good fortune.”
Robert Burgdorf is a leading disability rights writer, scholar, litigator, and legislative draftsperson; and is as person with a disability. He has advocated for, and written about, equal rights for people with disabilities for nearly fifty years, was involved in many of the formative court decisions establishing legal rights of individuals with disabilities, and was a key figure in the drafting and enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A professor at the David A. Clarke School of Law since 1989 (emeritus from 2014), he has taught courses on Disability Rights Law and Constitutional Law, and co-founded and directed the Legislation Clinic. A list of Professor Burgdorf's publications can be found on the School of Law's website.
In addition to insights on disability rights gained from his professional experience, Burgdorf has personal familiarity with the disability experience through his having a disability of the upper right arm and shoulder as a result of polio at the age of 13 months. Until he was eleven years old, he had almost no use of his right arm. After innovative surgery, he gained some range of motion of the affected joints. Both before and after the surgery he encountered negative reactions and discrimination because of his limitations. He also had to face the confounding uncertainty occasioned by some people considering his condition to be a dreadful, defining characteristic, while others treated it as minor or had not even noticed it.
First National Legal Advocacy Center and Early Legal Representation (1972-1975)
- While still in law school in 1972, he helped establish the National Center for Law and the Handicapped (NCLH), the first national legal advocacy center for people with disabilities.
- In one of his first court cases, he represented a young woman with severe physical disabilities before the Supreme Court of North Dakota, and won a judicial victory that was the first decision by the supreme court of any state recognizing the constitutional right of children with disabilities to equal educational opportunities in the public schools (In re G.H., 1974).
- He was involved in the first appellate court case involving educational rights of a child with autism (Case v. California, 1975).
- He represented children with disabilities in several other major, successful special education cases in federal courts, establishing the right to equal educational opportunities in a number of states.
Original Disability Rights Casebook and Continued Legal Representation (1976 to 1982)
- He was principal author and general editor of the first law school casebook on the subject of disability rights, The Legal Rights of Handicapped Persons.
- He represented the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the American Council of the Blind, and the National Association of Blind Teachers, as amici curiae before the Third Circuit in a landmark lawsuit that established a constitutional right of blind teachers to be permitted the opportunity to teach sighted pupils in the public schools (Gurmankin v. Costanzo, 1977).
- He participated as lead counsel for amicus curiae in Superintendent of Belchertown v. Saikewicz (1977), which resulted in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts adopting procedural guidelines, consistent with his recommendations, for decisions regarding the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical treatment for legally incompetent patients.
Crucial Building Blocks for the ADA (1982-1985)
- He co-authored the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’s first major report on discrimination against people with disabilities, Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities (1983).
- In 1984, he co-wrote a Statutory Blueprint for eliminating disability discrimination, which served as the model for the ADA.
Pivotal Stint at National Council on Disability, Authoring First Draft of the ADA (1985-1989)
- He was the principal staff author for the National Council on Disability (NCD) of Toward Independence, the Council’s 1986 report to the President and Congress, in which NCD first proposed the idea of enacting a comprehensive nondiscrimination law, and in which NCD adopted a Council member’s suggestion of the name “Americans with Disabilities Act.”
- With NCD guidance and approval, he wrote the version of the ADA bill that NCD published in its 1988 follow-up report, On the Threshold of Independence; and he produced the revised NCD version that was introduced in the 100th Congress that same year.
Continued Legal Work on the ADA and Efforts to Secure Passage (1989-1990)
- He collaborated with congressional staff and disability advocates as part of “the legal team” that negotiated changes and compromises to produce the version of the legislation that was introduced in the 101st Congress in 1989 and signed into law in 1990.
- He testified as a legal and technical expert before Senate and House Committees in support of the ADA.
Continuing Work for ADA Implementation and Enforcement: Reports, Articles, and Legal Briefs to Advance the ADA (1990-present)
- After enactment of the ADA, he wrote several articles to influence the regulations for implementing it, and then to analyze and critique court decisions under the new law; in a 1999 decision (Sutton v. United Airlines), the United States Supreme Court recognized him as “the drafter of the original ADA bill introduced in Congress in 1988,” and relied on his article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, The Americans with Disabilities Act: Analysis and Implications of a Second-Generation Civil Rights Statute, as authoritative commentary on the origins of the ADA.
- He was principal author and general editor of Disability Discrimination in Employment Law (Bureau of National Affairs, 1995), a comprehensive, 1,237-page legal treatise on the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace.
- He represented the National Council as amicus curiae before the U.S. Supreme Court in important ADA cases in 1999 and 2000, and he was the lead attorney for principal congressional sponsors of the ADA (Senators Robert Dole, Tom Harkin, James Jeffords, and Edward M. Kennedy, and Representative Steny Hoyer) in filing an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the case of PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin in 2001.
- He wrote the NCD report Righting the ADA (2004), cataloguing ways in which the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the ADA and presenting an “ADA Restoration Act” bill for putting the ADA back on the right track, a proposal that provided the basis for ADA Restoration Act bills introduced in the 109th and 110th Congresses, (upon which he testified at congressional hearings), culminating in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.
- In a report for NCD titled A Promising Start: Preliminary Analysis of Court Decisions under the ADA Amendments Act (2013), he analyzed the initial court decisions under the 2008 law, concluding that the decisions to date were generally looking pretty good, though some potential problem areas merit ongoing monitoring.
Court-Appointed Special Master for the Southern District of New York re installation of curb ramps throughout NYC (2016-2017)
- In 2016, he was appointed Special Master in Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association v. City of New York, a class action federal lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, challenging the City’s failure to satisfy accessibility requirements of the ADA regarding installation of curb ramps on New York City’s street corners. In July 2017, he provided the court with a comprehensive, 286-page report, containing 131 detailed findings and 14 recommendations; Judge George B. Daniels directed the parties to the lawsuit to negotiate a settlement of the case consistent with the recommendations in Professor Burgdorf’s report.
Bob Burgdorf has been married to Dr. Andi Farbman since 1989. They live in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Andi retired in 2018 after a four-and-a-half-decade career, the last 30 years leading the American Music Therapy Association. Bob retired from teaching in 2014, but took on a stint as a federal court Special Master in 2016, and since 2017 has been absorbed in writing material for this website.
Much of Bob and Andi’s personal joy and pride derives from their four adult daughters – Dorney, Molly, Gigi, and Arielle. Dorney is an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Specialist, who lives in Northern Virginia with our two grandchildren, Kira and Conor; Molly lives in Washington, D.C., where she works on disability issues as Section Chief in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights; Gigi is an actor who lives in London, England; Arielle is a writer, who is pursuing their Ph.D. in Literature at UC Santa Cruz.
Bob maintains close ties with his brother Jack and his sisters Sherry and Tammy, all of whom live in or near the family hometown of Evansville, Indiana, and keeps in touch with many of his aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins.
He is something of a basketball fanatic, with particular devotion to women’s basketball; he was a zealous old-guy basketball player until a couple of hip replacements have kept him (at least temporarily) off the court. He has a collection of locks and keys, and Bob and Andi’s home is bursting at the seams with books.