Pioneering Disability Rights

Robert Burgdorf Jr. | January 7, 2017

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.

The faculty member I asked — Charles W. Murdock — was an unlikely choice, as he was a business and corporate law specialist. But “Bud” Murdock had impressed me as a down-to-earth guy — smart and knowledgeable but also pragmatic and personable. My concern that he might be reluctant to get involved with an issue far outside his area of expertise was quickly dispelled when he said my coming to him was a fortunate coincidence. He had recently played tennis with a professor in Notre Dame’s biology department, Harvey Bender, and Bender mentioned that he was the vice president of the board of directors of the Council for the Retarded of St. Joseph County (eventually renamed Logan Community Resources), and the agency was exploring establishing a legal advocacy program. Murdock said maybe we should meet with the council and talk about whether we could collaborate on an advocacy project.

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 by Daily Domer Staff

Posted In: ND Magazine