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For Senator Harkin: Gratitude

BY ZACH WAHLS | NOVEMBER 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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Senator Tom Harkin has a long record of fighting for what he believes in, and all Iowans should miss that courage and resiliency when he finishes what is now his fifth and final term in 2015. Thank you Senator Harkin, for everything you’ve done.

Late last week, I had the pleasure of introducing Iowa’s junior senator at an event in which he discussed the ramifications of the Employment Non Discrimination Act, or ENDA. A few short weeks ago, a gender identity-inclusive ENDA passed the US Senate with a strong, bipartisan majority—a dream come true—though the bill’s prospects in the U.S. House are questionable. This isn’t the first time Senator Harkin has stood up to fight for the rights and protections of those unlike himself.  

One of the first things he did as a young senator was to craft the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — a landmark law that protected the rights of Americans with disabilities, people like Senator Harkin’s brother Frank, a deaf man, and people like my own mother, Terry Wahls.

When I was eight years old, my mother Terry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the nervous system. As I grew older, she grew weaker, succumbing day by day to a disease for which there is no cure.

I’ll never forget the first moment I saw the ramp that had been installed in our family’s minivan — it would allow us to transport her electric wheelchair, which, with the installation of that ramp, had become a permanent fixture in our family life.

I’ll never forget, either, the looks that people gave my mom as she rolled around. The awkwardness and the discomfort and the unspoken questions dancing behind their eyes of how to interact with this woman in a wheelchair. I’ll never forget my own shortness with Terry, the failures of my emotional stability and my outbursts of anger — at her, at her disease, at the world.

But it has only been with time — and my mother’s stabilization and eventual recovery — that I have come to appreciate the protections my family was afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. It was because of the ADA that my mom was able to continue working without fear of discrimination and was able to live knowing that she, generally speaking, would be able to go where she wanted to go.

In the words of one activist, the ADA protected my mother’s right to live in the world. Even if some nights would be dark — and they were — and even if our struggles at times would seem overwhelming, basic courtesies were extended to my family, and to my mother specifically, that made our days easier, our lives more bearable.

Ours is a generation that has come of age in a time when government hasn’t had the greatest track record. The longest war in American history has been — and is being — fought during our still-short lifetimes, and the people who started it didn’t have the political courage to pay for it, sticking you and me with the bill. The “PATRIOT” Act was an Orwellian victory of fear over reason. America’s War on Drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of millions of Americans for nonviolent, largely victimless crimes. And while the NSA’s spying doesn’t strike me as an existential threat to the American way of life, the fact that so much of its operations were unknown even to senior American lawmakers should trouble the most ardent statist.

Senator Harkin has stood against, in one way or another, all of the ills I just named. This is in addition to his tireless work advancing and protecting the rights of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.

Earlier this week, Ashley Lee wrote an article explaining why she isn’t a patriot. Yet, the very fact that she has the right to express that opinion is no small part of why so many of us do consider ourselves patriots. President Kennedy—who died fifty years ago this week—once observed: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

It is people like Senator Harkin who fight to solve our problems, and in so doing, show us what our destiny may be. While there are those, like Lee, who look at America’s history and see systematic disenfranchisement in our past and therefore future, I look at America’s history—at human history—and I see improvement. It is slow, at times faltering, but always moving forward, always moving towards more freedom, more opportunity and a fairer world for all.

Indeed, “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”—a recommitment to the perfection of our Union and the right to live in the world.

It is people like Senator Harkin who stand as examples of what America can be at its best, and it is people like Senator Harkin who fight to prevent a return to where we have been when we have been at our worst.

They say that a statesman is a politician who’s been dead for 20 years. I feel lucky to have been represented by a man who earned the title of “statesman” long before I was born.

Thank you, Senator Harkin. We’ll miss you in Washington, but we’re glad you’re coming home.


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