On this podcast, we depart from our usual format to remember Robert “Bobby Silverstein,” a legal powerhouse in the world of disability rights and often called the behind-the-scenes architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Silverstein died in late 2022 and we talk with friends and colleagues, including former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and disability rights pioneer Judy Heumann, who died just days before this episode was posted. Along with his wife, Lynne, they recalled his decades long effort, since when he was still a law student, to ensure that people with disabilities had the opportunity for full participation in society, equal opportunity, access to physical places, access to the workplace and jobs.
Ed: Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. This podcast is all about legislatures, the people in them, the policies, process, and politics that shape them. I’m your host, Ed Smith.
TH: To this day, I think Bobby Silverstein is the real unsung hero of getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and signed into law.
Ed: That was former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin talking about his longtime friend and former Senate staffer Robert “Bobby” Silverstein. Silverstein was a legal powerhouse in the world of disability rights and often called the behind-the-scenes architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990.
While Silverstein was very well known in the disability rights community, he never sought the spotlight. He was however credited with being a moving force not only behind the ADA, but more than 20 other pieces of federal legislation related to rights of people with disabilities. He also worked in recent years with state policymakers as they tried to help more people with disabilities enter the workforce.
Silverstein died in late 2022 at age 73. And on this podcast, I spoke with friends and colleagues of Silverstein and his wife Lynne about what made him not only so effective, but so trusted and well regarded in the disability community. Judy Heumann was a disability rights pioneer who spent decades as an activist and also worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations. I spoke with her just a couple of weeks before she died at age 75 on March 4. She first met Silverstein when he was working with Senator Harkin on the Senate subcommittee that drafted the ADA. Bobby was, she said, a “clear decisive thinker, was a respectful listener.”
JH: I think he very much you know over the years played different roles and in the role that I first met him in when he was working with Senator Harkin, that was clearly you know bringing the voices of disabled people together working broadly in coalitions with other groups. Listening, sharing, coaxing, cajoling and at the end with my words like a kitchen cabinet. You know working on putting language together that met the needs as best possible of all the different communities it had to be supporting you know the ADA.
Ed: Silverstein’s lifelong passion for civil rights and fairness became focused on disability rights early in his career. David Long was already an established attorney in working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law when in the early 1970s he met Silverstein, who first worked with a group as an intern from Georgetown Law.
DL: He was obviously an exceptional intellect and a disciplined mind and extremely well organized. He could organize large volumes of facts better than almost anybody I’ve ever known in my career. He loved to dig into random facts and provide order out of them to provide a deductive analysis of whether certain kinds of structures made sense. He was brilliant at that.
Ed: Long and Silverstein became fast friends. And when they left the committee, they founded a law firm together. Much of their practice revolved around federal education law and it led Silverstein to develop great expertise in special education, vocational education and portions of the law intended to help underprivileged students. Long says it also led to his decision to work on Capitol Hill.
DL: Bobby got interested in special education and became over the course of several years a very highly regarded special education advocate. He represented lots of parents in special education hearings. One of the reasons the firm broke up is that Bobby got tired of representing wealthy parents that is the parents who could afford representation in special education hearings when he saw all these kids that who needed special education probably even more than the children of affluent parents who were not getting represented. And huge amounts of money were going to the affluent through special education and he just it didn’t provide meaning to him to spend all of his time supporting the aspirations of affluent parents for their kids.
Ed: Remarking on Silverstein’s decision to work on Capitol Hill, Senator Harkin said he simply had a sense of justice that compelled him to ensure everyone was treated fairly.
TH: Bobby had an innate sense of social justice, what was right and what was wrong. And why it was society that needed to be changed, not people with disabilities. He just became I think the smartest person I’ve ever met in knowing all of the nuances of disability law going clear back to Section 504 of the Rehab Act. But he knew all the nuances of the social interactions that surrounded the problems that people with disabilities had in being included in our society.
Ed: Silverstein spent two years as council to a house subcommittee on education before Senator Harkin hired him in 1989 to work on the senate subcommittee that would craft the ADA.
TH: His job was number one bring together the disability community. They were not all together on what needed to be done and so he needed to work with them to get them unified. Secondly, we needed to get the business sector on our side, so he needed to reach out to that business community and build up their trust and confidence in this legislation. Third we needed to keep in close contact with key republican staff, legislative directors of key republicans. Of course, we had a couple of backups on that. We had Senator Doyle of course on our side and the President of the United States, President Busch. And lastly, we had to get a new relationship with the house. Congressman Cuellar who had been one of the original drafters of the ADA was no longer in the House and so we need to establish new relationships with both House republicans and House democrats.
So, I think if it could be said that I was the manager of the American with Disabilities Act Bill in 89 and 90, Bobby Silverstein was my quarterback. He called the plays. He knew the lay of the field. He knew how to run the ball. And he could see the obstacles that we need to overcome. To this day, I think Bobby Silverstein is the real unsung hero of getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed and signed into law on July 26, 1990.
Ed: Silverstein’s abilities as a negotiator were legendary and one of the keys to his success in getting people to back a long line of legislative victories. Judy Heumann particularly remembered working with him on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when she served in the Clinton administration.
JH: He was also hard negotiator, and he always was working with a diverse group of people so that people could be brought in to raise the fire on certain issues when you know nothing new and it’s not disability specific. So, when I worked at the department, I worked with Bobby a lot as did my chief of policy. We would work with him a lot as we were working on the reauthorization of the IDEA and talk about what it was that we were trying to do and to brainstorm things that needed to be done and to get guidance that we you know take what you want and leave the rest. But we saw him as a very important person to run many things by because of his knowledge and expertise in so many areas particularly because he knew the Hill so very well.
Ed: His belief in the value of negotiation even extended to his home life. His wife Lynne says he was very clear with their sons how they should handle disagreements.
LS: How we brought up our children because Bobby’s work is reflected in that. From the time our children were toddlers, he taught them that when they had a problem, they needed to negotiate with each other and solve the problem on their own. And what this meant for our younger son who could barely put full sentences together at this time, Bobby could sit would sit behind him and translate for him or ask him what he wanted and translate it to his older brother. So, the idea was to build them as a team that they wouldn’t have to come and rely on us and that they could learn some negotiation skills.
Ed: While Silverstein left Capitol Hill in 1997, he continued to work in the disability rights area for the rest of his life. That include roles at George Washington University Medical Center and as director of the Center for Study in Advancement of Disability Policy.
Katia Albanese is a communications consultant and project manager for the State Exchange Employment and Disability, a U.S. Department of Labor-funded initiative aimed at ensuring state policymakers have the resources needed to develop policies related to including those with disabilities in the workforce. She was struck by his passion to share what he knew about disability policy with others.
KA: He is why I am doing the work that I do. He helped really guide me and teach me and share. He was a great teacher. Disability policy was something he was an expert in, but he wanted to make everyone also an expert and passionate about. He was always teaching people; not just talking to them. Really helping them understand the policy issues, the policy options, what you know what the federal government was doing, what the state government was doing, what a policy really meant. You know what the implications were. He was very thoughtful in the work that he did and that’s why you have so many people that will tell you that speak so highly about him. He had such impact because he was that mentor/teacher.
Ed: What’s more Albanese said was the work in the states was a new opportunity for Silverstein that he relished.
KA: This seed initiative he used to say was like the you know the pinnacle of his career. It was all the work that he had been doing leading up to a point like he worked a lot on federal policy of course. But then working in the states it was just being able to take all that the new and learn and kind of help the states take that information and really make an impact on people’s lives you know at the local level.
Ed: While Silverstein was devoted to his work, his friends and wife all said he was even more devoted to his family. Lynne Silverstein said she and their two sons were always the priority.
LS: If he was meeting with a very high-level person and a call came in from one of the kids or from me, he would say excuse me a minute, I have to take this call. He made sure that although he worked incredible hours that he would be home for dinner almost all the time. And if that meant going in at 2 in the morning, he did that. He was totally present for all of our sons’ events. He had a tremendous commitment to us.
Ed: The work Silverstein and countless others dedicated their lives to brought about huge changes in American society in terms of full participation, equal opportunity, access to physical places, access to the workplace and jobs. But maybe as important is that people understand disability in a different way than they did 40 or 50 years ago in part because of the efforts of Bobby Silverstein and Judy Heumann. At the end of our conversation, Heumann offered this parting thought about Silverstein.
JH: And he needs to be remembered as the type of person that we need more of. I mean he was a loving husband, a loving father, but he was also very committed to changing society.
Ed: Defining anyone’s legacy without the benefit of a long period of time to look back is difficult, but Senator Harkin is pretty clear about how Bobby Silverstein should be remembered.
TH: Bobby Silverstein’s legacy can be seen if you just look around society. Anything that makes life easier and better and more inclusive for persons with disabilities is part of his legacy. Full participation. Equal opportunity. Independent living. Economic self-sufficiency. The goals of the ADA are out there and Bobby Silverstein’s fingerprints, his hand was involved in formulating all of it. So often in my 40 years in Congress 30 in the Senate and I say this is true of all Senators. We get accolades for things that we do and major legislation we pass, but oftentimes it’s the staff who really does the work and gets it done. And I can say unequivocally that the Americans with Disabilities Act, Bobby Silverstein was the engineer or the quarterback as I’ve said the person who pulled it all together and made it happen. So, I hope in future generations as historians look at the history of this and more research is done, people will come to realize that Bobby Silverstein was the key element, the key person, in bringing together the disability community, the business community, ah Senate and the House players to really redraft and put together this major civil rights bill. He was the key person no doubt about it.
Ed: I’ve been talking with Katia Albanese, David Long, Tom Harkin, Judy Heumann and Lynne Silverstein about the life and legacy of Robert “Bobby” Silverstein. Thanks for listening.
You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO, hosts “Legislatures: The Inside Storey” where he focuses on leadership and legislatures. The “Our American States” podcast dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.