Robert L. Burgdorf Jr.
Professor of Law Emeritus
A.B., University of Notre Dame, 1970; J.D., University of Notre Dame School of Law, 1973.
A recognized national expert on the legal rights of people with disabilities, Professor Burgdorf joined the faculty of the David A. Clarke School of Law in 1989. He initiated the School of Law’s constitutional law courses, which he taught for the next ten years. In 1991, he co-founded, with the late David A. Clarke, the school’s Legislation Clinic, which he directed until 2014, when he was granted Professor Emeritus status. He has periodically taught a seminar course on the Civil Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Professor Burgdorf has written extensively on the rights of persons with disabilities, and was the principal author and general editor of the first law school casebook on the subject. He co-authored the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ first major report on discrimination against people with disabilities, Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities.
He was the principal staff author of Toward Independence, the National Council on the Handicapped’s 1986 report to the President and Congress, and wrote the original version of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was introduced in the 100th Congress; the bill was reintroduced with revisions in 1989, and was ultimately signed into law in its final version in 1990. The United States Supreme Court has recognized Professor Burgdorf as “the drafter of the original ADA bill introduced in Congress in 1988,” and has relied on Professor Burgdorf’s article, The Americans with Disabilities Act: Analysis and Implications of a Second-Generation Civil Rights Statute, 26 Harvard Civ. Rights Civ. Lib. L. Rev 413 (1991), as authoritative commentary on the origins of the ADA. Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471, 484-85 (1999).
He was the general editor and principal author of a comprehensive legal treatise on the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace, Disability Discrimination in Employment Law, published by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) in 1995. At various times earlier in his career, Professor Burgdorf worked at the University of Maryland School of Law, the National Center for Law and the Handicapped, the General Counsel’s Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the National Easter Seal Society. He represented the National Council on Disability as amicus curiae before the United States Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C. in 1999 and in Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett in 2000, and congressional sponsors of the Americans with Disabilities Act in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin in 2001. He served as general editor and principal contributing legal analyst for the report of the National Council on Disability on federal enforcement of the ADA, Promises to Keep: A Decade of Federal Enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, published in 2000.
His summary of the issues raised, holdings, and implications of Supreme Court’s decisions under the ADA, Supreme Court Decisions Interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act (updated through September 2002), was published on the website of the National Council on Disability. The National Council followed this up with a series of policy analysis papers discussing the implications of problematic decisions of the Supreme Court on the ADA; Policy Brief Series: Righting the ADA Papers (National Council on Disability), of which Professor Burgdorf wrote papers numbered 1 through 5, and 11 through 19. Subsequently, he wrote the Council’s report Righting the ADA (2004) which catalogued ways in which the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the ADA and presented an ADA Restoration Act bill for putting the ADA back on the right track. This proposal provided the basis for ADA Restoration Act bills introduced in the 109th and 110th Congresses, that culminated in enactment of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.
Professor Burgdorf has also been active in the international disability rights realm. He represented the National Council on Disability as a part of the U.S. Delegation to the Working Group on Persons with Disabilities in the American Hemisphere of the Organization of American States Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs that drafted the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities. He has consulted with delegations and organizations from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain, and South Africa about the drafting and interpretation of laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. His article The Americans with Disabilities Act in an International Context was published in the Fall 1998 issue of the Civil Rights Journal of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 2003 and 2004, he participated in the EU Group of Legal Experts on Combating Discrimination on Grounds of Disability, which advised the European Commission on disability discrimination issues, and delivered substantive papers to the Group on particular legal issues. In December 2003, the significance of Professor Burgdorf’s pioneering work to establish legal rights for people with disabilities was acknowledged in the United Nations during ceremonies in observance of the United Nations Day of Disabled Persons.
Professor Burgdorf served as a member of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law from 2002 to 2006. He received a commendation from the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities in1988, was given a Just Do It! award by the Commissioner of the federal Administration on Developmental Disabilities in 1991, awarded a Mary E. Switzer Rehabilitation Research Distinguished Fellowship in 2000, and presented a National Leadership Award by the National Council on Disability in 2006. In 2011, he received the da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
In honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th, 2015, Professor Burgdorf wrote A Dozen Things to Know about the ADA on its 25th Anniversary; to see the current version, click HERE.
In 2017, the Notre Dame Magazine published his description of the early days of disability advocacy in the 1970’s, – Pioneering Disability Rights, http://magazine.nd.edu/news/72310/ – chronicling his involvement in seminal court cases and legislative advocacy, leading to his eventual role in the drafting of the ADA; to see the article, click HERE.
In October 2016, Professor Burgdorf 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’s street corners. He was assigned the responsibility to collect and evaluate the facts and make recommendations to the federal judge, George B. Daniels, to enable him to make an informed decision whether a proposed settlement by the parties was fair, reasonable, and adequate. Professor Burgdorf provided the court a comprehensive, 286-page report, containing 131 detailed findings and 14 recommendations, on July 31, 2017; to see the report, click HERE. Judge Daniels has directed the parties to the lawsuit to negotiate, under the supervision of Magistrate Judge Kevin N. Fox, to settle the case consistent with the recommendations in Professor Burgdorf’s report.
Burgdorf on Disability Rights Website
In honor of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, in July of 2020, Professor Burgdorf launched a website on the Disability Rights Movement and the ADA, titled ADAchronicles. It includes stories and essays, and detailed historical accounts, plus many basic documents not previously available for public view. To visit the website, click here, https://adachronicles.org