Onward!

By Guest Blogger Senator Tom Harkin (Ret.)

It is hard to believe it has been 25 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This nation has come a long way since the passing of this historic civil rights act. Before the ADA, I heard stories of individuals who had to crawl on their hands and knees to go up a flight of stairs at a school or a court house, who couldn’t ride a bus because there wasn’t a lift and individuals couldn’t attend a baseball game with their own family due to inaccessibility at the ball park. Millions of Americans were denied access to their own communities – and because of that they were denied access to the American dream.

I saw this denial firsthand in the life of my older brother Frank, who was deaf. He was the inspiration for my sponsoring the ADA, and for my lifelong work on disability rights. We’ve come so far as a county since passage of the ADA. However, the work is far from over. We must continue the fight for policies that will make the goals of the ADA a reality: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities and their families.

While books, buildings, and baseball stadiums may be far more accessible to people with disabilities than they were before the passage of the ADA, one area stands as a disappointment to me: employment. We have barely seen any increase in employment of people with disabilities since 1990 despite what every survey and study says – that people with disabilities want the benefits, dignity and power of work.

But I have hope we can build a better future for those who want and can work. Over the past year we’ve seen some improvements in disability employment with almost 400,000 workers with disabilities entering the workforce in the past year. We are also seeing dedicated businesses commit to making their workplaces accessible and to hiring people with disabilities. Walgreens, Microsoft, Wells Fargo and many other companies are making great strides in hiring, retaining and promoting people with disabilities.

We have seen some good news from government, too. Five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the passage of the ADA, the President issued an executive order with the goal to hire 100,000 new employees in the federal government over five years. That goal is very close to being met. In another executive order issued in 2014, the President raised the pay of employees on federal contracts, including those with disabilities, to $10.10 an hour. In 2013, the office responsible for all federal contracts established a goal that seven percent of the workforce of federal contractors be people with disabilities. And at the state level, in 2013, Governor Markell of Delaware made increasing disability employment the goal of the National Governors Association.

These efforts make me hopeful that we are beginning to address the challenge of un- and underemployment of people with disabilities.

Twenty-five years ago the passage of the ADA affirmed the foundation of civil rights for people with disabilities. We have been building an accessible society on that foundation for the past two and a half decades. Like any other foundation, it is what is built on top of it that is important in our daily lives. The civil rights ensured by the ADA can only be guaranteed if we are vigilant about protecting them. As we move forward into the next quarter century of the ADA, let’s all pledge to protect those rights in all parts of our lives. Onward!

About the Guest Blogger

In 1974, Tom was elected to Congress from Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District. As a young senator, Tom was tapped by Senator Ted Kennedy to craft legislation to protect the civil rights of millions of Americans with physical and mental disabilities.Tom knew firsthand about the challenges facing people with disabilities from his late brother, Frank, who was deaf from an early age. What emerged from that process would later become Tom’s signature legislative achievement – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To preserve the intent of the ADA after several court rulings weakened its standards, Tom and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the ADA Amendments bill to ensure continuing protections from discrimination for all Americans with disabilities. It was signed into law in September 2008. In November 2008, Tom made history by becoming the first Iowa Democrat to win a fifth term in the U.S. Senate. Tom retired from the United States Senate in January, 2015.

Tom Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa (pop. 150) on November 19, 1939, the son of an Iowa coal miner father and a Slovenian immigrant mother. To this day, he still lives in the house in Cumming where he was born. In 1968, Tom married Ruth Raduenz, the daughter of a farmer and a school teacher from Minnesota. Tom and Ruth have two daughters, Amy and Jenny, and three grandchildren.

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