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Former Sen. Tom Harkin discusses what is ahead for the ADA

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | JULY 27, 2015 5:00 AM

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The Daily Iowan Ethics and Politics Initiative spoke to former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on July 24 about the background, legacy, and future of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Harkin was the lead author of what became the ADA 25 years ago and has been honored by numerous organizations for his advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities.

DI:  I spoke with Marca Bristo’s, Access Living CEO and former head of the National Council on Disabilities, and she told me that in her opinion that the ADA could not be passed in today’s political environment. Is that something you agree with?

Harkin: I do. We had celebrations all week this week and last week and will continue on for a couple of days next week celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA and sort of looking back and seeing how far we’ve come and sort of taking stock and seeing where we need to go to in the future.

A lot of the meetings I’ve been in with like [former] Sen. [Bob] Dole, [R-Kan.] and [former] Sen. [Lowell] Weicker, [R- Conn.] Republicans [former] Rep. Steve Bartlett [R-Texas] another Republican — it was unique point in time. First of all, we had a president of the United States that put his full weight behind it. In fact, when George H.W. Bush campaigned for president in 1988, he committed himself to this. If elected president, he was going to support a civil-rights bill for people with disabilities, and he followed through on that.

So here we had the president putting a lot of his support behind it. We had at that time a minority leader Bob Dole helping us on it. We just had Republicans and Democrats coming together to get this thing passed. I just think that today that just wouldn’t happen.

We had the business community opposed to it, but we worked with the business community, and we got it worked out. So rather than the Republicans saying, “We’re opposed to it, because the business community is opposed to it,” a lot these of Republicans said, “Let’s work this out; we want to get it done, what are your objections?” They went right back to the business community and said, “What can we do to make it acceptable?”

I think today if the business community came out opposed to something like that, a lot of these people on the other side of the aisle would say that’s it, we’re not going to support it.

So we had conscientious people on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats that came together. I just don’t think that in the today’s atmosphere the ADA could be passed.

DI: Do you think that any challenges or obstacles could rise up to the ADA with the current political climate?

Harkin: Well, we’re still having obstacles in expanding the ADA and making it a reality. A lot of those are just inherent in changing this vast system that we have. I think we’ve overcome most of them. I think the law is well-settled. Now, we have regulations coming out to enforce the ADA, and that’s where the stumbling blocks might be in the future — that is as with any law, you have to have regulations on how the law is to be implemented and enforced. That’s usually when we run into problems with people not wanting to support the regulations.

DI: There has been some push back from American Hotel and Lodging Association and the motion-pictures industry [specifically the National Association of Theater Owners] to some of the most recent ADA regulations.  Do you foresee that happening more so down the road as the [Justice Department] rolls out more regulations?

Harkin: There probably well be, but every time objections are raised, we find that it does not require much to comply with the regs. A lot of it is just an immediate reaction and in just about every case I have seen in the past, once the business community adopts those regs and complies with them they actually do better in terms of their own bottom line — in terms of hiring people with disabilities and employing people with disabilities. That is the big challenge of the future, jobs for people with disabilities. Understand this, more than 60 percent of adult Americans with disabilities are not in the workforce.  That is just a blot on our national character — everything we are doing now is to try to overcome that and to get more people with disabilities in the mainstream workforce of America.

DI: Do you need affirmative action type policy to overcome that?

Harkin: Of course. Take one example, section 503 of the rehab act. [Rehabilitation Act of 1973], one portion of that, section 503, says that government contractors have to make sure they practice diversity in hiring — not only including race, sex, and religion but also disability. But it did not say what they had to do — it was sort of there. And so all these years we have been pushing to get a regulation out to tell businesses, this is what we mean. Within the last couple of years, finally came out with a regulation that said that businesses that contract with the government should have a minimum of 7 percent of their workforce being people with disabilities. Now, there may be some of exceptions to that depending on the size of the business, of course, but that is the floor. Since 20 percent of Americans are people with disabilities, one of out every five, then the workforce in any given situation ought to reflect that. So 7 percent is not the end at all; it is sort of a floor, and it should be as we go forward a heck of a lot more than that. That was just one regulations.
And there are other regulations that people have to have affirmative-action programs to make sure that they comply both with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but also the ADA.

Take an example like the Civil Rights Act; you can’t discriminate against people of color. Let’s say you employ, let’s use an extreme example, let’s say that you employ 100 people, but in your pool, you only have one person of color who works there. Are you complying with the Civil Rights Act because you have one person out of 100? Let’s say you just have one woman; are you complying with the mandate on no discrimination of the basis of sex if you have one woman? No. It has to be reflective of the cross section of our society.

It is the same way with disability. You can’t say, “Well, I’ve got one disabled person out of a 100. Well yeah, but 20 percent of the American people are disabled. You’ve got to do a little bit better than that.

DI: The [Rehabilitation] act only applies to government contractors [and federal agencies, programs receiving federal money, and federal employment]. What do you think is best to do in terms of trying to get people with disabilities hired by private employers?

Harkin: First of all,getting private employers to follow the lead of some companies that are doing a very good job of employing people with disabilities. Walgreens, for example, has a tremendous affirmative-action program to hire people with disabilities. And it is doing it. It has a goal of hiring at least 10 percent of all people at all of its stores will be people with disabilities. I visited a Walgreens distribution plant in Hartford, Connecticut, a couple of years ago; 40 percent of the people that work there were people with disabilities. Forty percent. And the CEO said, “I don’t do this out of the goodness of my heart,” he said, that this is my most productive distribution center in America. Other companies have to start looking at this and understanding that sometimes the best workers they will ever get are people with disabilities.

Again, there is always the backstop of legal action.

For example, if I’m a person with disability and I go down to apply for a job for which I’m qualified. Now, I always want to make sure that this is well understood. Neither the ADA nor I ever asked an employer to hire someone who is not qualified for that job.

You meet all the qualifications. They may have to make some minor modification to the workplace. 
So you are a person with a disability and you apply for a job for which you are qualified and you don’t get hired — you might want to take that case on. The courthouse door is open.

DI: What are your thoughts in terms of making the online marketplace more accessible and what role do you feel the government should have in that.

Harkin: Well, it’s interesting you would ask me that, because I’m calling from Google’s headquarters here in Washington. And we just had a breakfast with people with disabilities and people who have been advocates in the past. I said this not only to Google but to others, information and communications technology is going to be a big growth area in the next 25 years — it’s huge. The platforms that are designed for both the Internet and the intranet in companies have to be designed from the ground up to be fully accessible to people. Google is basically taking quite a good lead in this area. It asks for ideas and suggestions about what it can do. To me, that is one of the key elements to getting more jobs for more people with disabilities is adaptable technology. Sometimes, a workplace can use technology to make sure that a person with disability can work there — using technology to get their job done, for example. Information and commutations technology can be the gateway to mass numbers of people with disabilities being employed in the future that, but the Internet not designed from the ground up to be accessible; that gate could be closed. That is why it is so important for these high-tech companies to begin to think about what their platform design is like.

DI: You spoken a lot with, and in the Senate, talked a lot about the ADA generation.  Do you see people in that generation stepping up and filling the shoes of those who made the ADA possible?

Harkin: Oh sure — that is why I am so optimistic about the future.  This ADA generation that grew up under the ADA, they are now in their 20s and 30s: they’ve gone to school and through higher education, college graduates. This morning I was with the young woman who was the first deaf woman lawyer in America and she is African American. These young people, let me tell you, are not going to take a back seat. They are going to continue to push these frontiers of employment, accessibility and adaptability. One of the young women here this morning was Maria Town, and she works at the White House. She was in charge of putting on the whole White House celebration on Monday. There are persons with disabilities that are in key positions. There are going to be business leaders, social-type leaders and government leaders in the next 10 to 20 years, and they to will send powerful signals to younger people about what is possible. I just think this whole new generation they are going to take the Americans with Disabilities Act to a new higher level.


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