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Senator Tom Harkin: reflections on disability policy.

Senator Tom Harkin: Reflections on Disability Policy

Justin Dart, Chairperson of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, once said that the next edition of the book, "Profiles in Courage," should include a chapter on U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa for his leadership in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1989. Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, may be the only native of Cumming, Iowa (population 151) to earn such a high accolade from Dart.

In preparing to interview Senator Harkin, I was informed that he is the fifty-year-old son of an Irish coal mining father who suffered from black lung disease later in life. Harkin's mother was a Yugoslavian immigrant. Senator Harkin is married to Ruth Raduenz Harkin, an attorney, and he is the father of two daughters, Amy and Jenny. The Senator's brother, Frank, who is deaf, taught Harkin sign language. In fact my strong interest in doing sabatical work with Senator Harkin's Subcommittee on Disability Policy began in 1988 when I saw him sign most of his own speech at the inauguration of Dr. I. King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet University. A deaf faculty member sitting next to me during Harkin's speech signed, "It makes me feel that I've died and gone to heaven when I see a U.S. Senator signing so fluently." During the inaugural speech at Gallaudet, Senator Harkin said, "Together we will not rest until every vestige of discrimination against Americans with disabilities is removed from our society and every citizen with a disability is accorded the respect and dignity he or she deserves."

Harkin earned an undergraduate degree in government and economics at Iowa State University. Subsequently, he served as a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam. When Tom Harkin completed his military service, he worked in several congressional staff jobs while earning his Catholic University law degree at night. Then Harkin returned to Iowa to practice law.

In 1974, Tom Harkin was elected to the first of his five terms representing the Fifth District of Iowa in the U. S. House of Representatives. Harkin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 where he serves as Deputy Whip and member of the Agriculture, Appropriations, Small Business, and Labor and Human Resources Committees. Senator Harkin is chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Services. This Subcommittee controls $140 billion a year in "people programs." Tom Harkin is also chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy. In only three years as chair of this Subcommittee, Senator Harkin has scored major legislative victories with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the establishment of the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1987, and the Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Amendments Act of 1988.

Bob Silverstein, the skilled chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, advised me to just call Harkin "Tom" when I met the Senator for the first time. Tom Harkin's office in the Hart Senate Office Building has an Iowa popcorn machine for constituents and visitors in the reception area. Behind the reception area wall was a large maze of busy staff cubicles. The Senator's personal office was comfortable but modest. The most memorable feature of the office for me was a framed poster of the solar system with an arrow toward the Earth saying, "You are here." Harkin is a tall, trim individual who looks considerably younger than his age. He asked if I would mind if he ate his sandwich lunch while we talked.

The Americans with

Disabilities Act

I asked Harkin if the Americans with Disabilities Act had been his proudest achievement in the Senate. He said he thought the ADA nothing less than an "emancipation proclamation" for people with disabilities. Harkin said, "My friend, Lowell Weicker, was right when he said that people with disabilities spend a lifetime overcoming not what God wrought, but what man has imposed by custom and law." The Senator remarked that the ADA was at least twenty-five years late. He said, "The founders declared that we are all created equal, but it took almost a century for black men and women to see the end of slavery. It took another sixty years for women to get the right to vote," said Harkin, "and it took another forty-five years to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964." Harkin pointed out that twenty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal law still did not provide protection for qualified persons with disabilities who are denied a job in the private sector or are denied the right to go to public establishments. "The ADA closes the gap," said Harkin. He was quick to emphasize the leadership of Congressman Steny Hoyer and former Congressman Tony Coehlo in working the ADA through the House of Representatives.

In the employment discrimination area, Senator Harkin said the ADA requires employers to reasonably accommodate qualified individuals with disabilities if the accommodation does not cause an "undue hardship" on the business. Harkin remarked, "The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities tells me that most reasonable accommodation for job applicants and employees with disabilities cost less than $50." He said that businesses with 25 or fewer employees are not covered by the ADA for the first two years after the effective date of the law, and businesses with 15 or fewer employees will not be covered by the ADA after that. Further, Senator Harkin emphasized that the ADA gives businesses two years to learn about the employment provisions of the law before it goes into effect. Harkin said the ADA will provide technical assistance to everyone with rights and responsibilities under this law. Harkin said, "Look, the truth is that many business people have already taken the lead in employing qualified people with disabilities." He mentioned the Senate testimony of Jay Rochlin, executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Senator Harkin recalled Rochlin's testimony about the "window of opportunity" for job applicants and employees with disabilities until the year 2000 because of the shortage of non-disabled eighteen-year-olds entering the job market. Senator Harkin also noted that the employment discrimination provisions of the ADA are intended to help individuals with disabilities become taxpayers and help the government reduce the $57 billion in Federal funds spent annually on disability benefits and programs. "A Lou Harris study found that not working is perhaps the truest definition of what it means to be disabled in America," said Harkin. He went on to say that there are at least 8.2 million people with disabilities who want to work but cannot find a job. Harkin made the point that, "We must send a clear message to the hard working children with disabilities in special education programs that the ADA will help qualified people with disabilities achieve a broader spectrum of job opportunities." Senator Harkin said, "I cannot emphasize enough that informed people with disabilities, employers and rehabilitation professionals will be the primary people who will make the ADA work, not the lawyers." Harkin stressed the need for rehabilitation training programs to provide "ADA Effectiveness" workshops for all three groups.

Harkin said the public accommodation section of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in places of public accommodation, including restaurants, doctors' offices, retail stores and hotels. He emphasized that the ADA does not apply to religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations. Senator Harkin said, "You know, my home state of Iowa and many other states already require new buildings to be made accessible to people with disabilities." He made the point that, "Existing facilities must be made accessible if changes are readily achievable, that is, easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense." Harkin pointed out that auxiliary aids and services must be provided unless such provisions would fundamentally alter the nature of the program or cause an "undue burden." He said that new construction and major renovations must be designed and constructed to be readily accessible and usable by people with disabilities. Harkin pointed out that the public accommodation section of the ADA also has specific prohibitions against discrimination in public transportation services provided by private companies, including the failure to make new over-the-road buses accessible six years from the date of enactment for large over-the-road providers and seven years for small over-the-road providers.

Harkin said that the public services section of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides that no qualified individual with a disability may be discriminated against by a department, agency, special purpose district or other instrumentality of a state or local government. He said the public services section of the ADA requires that all new fixed route buses must be made accessible unless a transit authority can demonstrate that no lifts are available from qualified manufacturers. Senator Harkin noted that a public transit authority must also provide para-transit for those individuals who cannot use mainline accessible transportation up to the point that the provision of such supplementary services would pose an undue financial burden on the transit authority. Harkin said this section of the ADA takes effect 18 months after the date of enactment, with the exception of the obligation to ensure that new public buses are accessible, which takes effect 30 days after the date of enactment. "Thinking about the public transportation section of the ADA, I am reminded of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee testimony of Perry Tillman, a veteran who lost the use of his legs in Vietnam," said Senator Harkin. "Perry said he hoped that when he lost the use of his legs he didn't lose his ability to achieve his dreams." Harkin went on to say that people like Perry Tillman should be able to use public transportation to get to a job interview, theater or doctor's office.

Senator Harkin said the last major section of the ADA specifies that telephone services offered to the general public must include interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services that enable hearing impaired and communication impaired persons who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDDs) to make calls to and receive calls from individuals using voice telephones.

Future Directions

When asked about future disability and rehabilitation related initiatives in the Congress, Harkin said that the Rehabilitation Act will be reauthorized in 1991, "so now is the time for the disability and rehabilitation communities to start working with their legislative representatives on substantive legislative concerns and priorities. I am committed to further reductions in the SSI/SSDI disincentives people with disabilities face in going to work," said Harkin. "I want to see even more progress in the assistive technology area," said the Senator. Harkin emphasized the importance of greater involvement in planning and evaluating rehabilitation services by people with disabilities. He stressed the importance of having well qualified personnel to work effectively with people with severe disabilities. "We need more rehabilitation service providers from the minority and disability communities," said Harkin. "We want to be sure that the basic Vocational Rehabilitation state grant funds are adequate to continue the work of the VR state agencies, especially in rural communities," said Harkin. The Senator said he fought hard last year for a decent $70 million increase in basic state VR grant funding. Senator Harkin said, "We need special education, transition and state Vocational Rehabilitation programs to continue to help people with disabilities become qualified for the broader range of jobs that the ADA will help open up." At the same time, Senator Harkin emphasized, "as the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Services, I am very concerned about the budget deficit but the deficit is not just a question of math, it's a question of priorities." He said we must reorder our priorities in ways that reflect our national commitment to investing in people.
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Article Details
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Author:McCrone, William P.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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