In Memoriam – David Durenberger

David Durenberger is remembered for many accomplishments, including his work on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Durenberger, who died […]

David Durenberger headshot

David Durenberger is remembered for many accomplishments, including his work on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Durenberger, who died January 31 at his St. Paul home, is to be laid to rest February 7 at a service in Collegeville.

He was 88 years ago.

Durenberger was born in St. Cloud in 1934. He grew up on the St. John’s campus in Collegeville, where her father was a coach and athletic director.

He attended St. john’s and law School,, and spent his early career as an attorney. He worked as executive secretary for Gov. Harold “Hap” Levander until 1971.

Durenberger was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978, to fill a seat left open after the death of Hubert H. Humphrey. He served until 1995 and was considered to be an expert in health care, disability, environmental policy and other issues. He chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, among other Senate duties.

He was also a champion of the ADA and cosponsor of the important legislation. He worked closely with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Listen to his interview about the ADA on  the Disability Justice website, at https://disabilityjustice.org/senator-david-durenberger-on-the-ada/ In the interview Durenberger reflects on the 30th anniversary of the ADA. He began his Senate career by addressing women’s discrimination and then disability discrimination; how people with disabilities became his friends and influencers; the process of passing the ADA and the impact of the ADA. To those who opposed passing this civil rights legislation, Durenberger said, “We cannot afford not to pass the ADA and enable people with disabilities to be employed.”

Another insightful interview is at the Minnesota Council https://mn.gov/mnddc/ada-legacy/ada-legacy-moment30.html

Durenberger added these memories to that interview several years later:

As President George H. W. Bush approached the platform on which he was to sign the ADA bill into law, the band played “Hail to the Chief.” All present, who were able, stood to welcome the President who helped make the ADA a reality. Immediately we heard a chorus of voices of those who were unable to stand, yell “Down in front.” Said it all right there on the White House lawn!

If I learned anything from my life before the Senate, it was the value of independent living to persons with disabilities from early in life or after serious aging sets in, meaning living in interdependence with a community of supportive persons and public policies. By the time I stood for re-election to my second term in office, I proudly wore a “Durenberger: He’s Accessible” button produced by friends in the community of persons with disabilities.

Public policy as bold as a commitment to civil rights relies on timing. The decade of the 1980s had seen particular attention paid to the rights of those with disabilities culminate in a Republican President joining with a Democratic Congress to create and pass the ADA. As a principal co-sponsor, I focused on persuading employers who feared they couldn’t afford mandated access that they couldn’t afford not to provide it.

This varied from bus companies to restaurants. My task was made easier by finding examples of business leadership already providing access for all, regardless of disability, including a restaurant owner who’d installed special electrical connections for guests whose assistive devices required them.

Another tribute is at https://www.willshireconsulting.com/blog/ as former Minnesota Council on Disability Executive Director Joan Willshire worked with the late senator on many issues.

Minnesota Public Radio aired tributes. “Minnesota lost one of its finest public servants. I truly mean that,” said former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson. “Outstanding individual, well-informed and deeply concerned about the well-being of others. It is a huge loss.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar praised Durenberger’s work in the Senate, including his efforts to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. She called Durenberger “a thoughtful leader, a passionate advocate, and a true friend. We are lucky to have benefited from his good work and his good heart for so many years.”

We’ll have more about the late senator and his legacy in our March print edition. I interviewed him several times and found him to be forthright and approachable.

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