On ADA’s 31st anniversary, Biden recalls Harkin’s historic role

By: - July 26, 2021 7:39 pm

President Joe Biden upon the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo via C-Span screenshot.

President Joe Biden on Monday recalled a hallmark moment in the career of former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. 

At a White House ceremony marking the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Harkin authored and sponsored, Biden described the moment just before the Senate passed the bipartisan bill.

“On the floor of the United States Senate, Tom Harkin sought recognition and he rose. And for the first time in the history that I’m aware of in the United States Senate, he stood up and signed a speech to his brother. Tom was sending a message to millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing folks. He was speaking to his brother, Frank. It was personal to him.”

Frank Harkin lost his hearing at age 5.

After signing the opening of his speech without talking, Harkin told his fellow senators that he wanted to thank his brother. “I wanted to do that as sort of a special way of thanking a very special person in my life who taught me at a very early age that people with disabilities could do anything they set their minds to do. And that people should be judged on the basis of their abilities and not on the basis of their disabilities,” Harkin said on the Senate floor.

In a 2020 Des Moines Register article, Harkin recalled when his brother left home to study at a school in Council Bluffs, bristling at how it was referred to as a facility for the “deaf and dumb.”

At one point, Frank told his brother the senator, “I may be deaf, but I am not dumb,” the Register reported. 

Feds make $400B plan to improve access

On Monday, Biden noted that the ADA has improved education for those with disabilities, adding that his administration and Congress have a plan to spend $400 billion for more access to a variety of services for those who have disabilities. 

Republican President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA legislation on July 26, 1990, after work in Congress led by Harkin and Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who lost the use of his right arm in World War II.

Just before Monday’s ceremony, Biden talked to Harkin, who told the president he was in Wisconsin working on an ADA-related project. Biden also spoke to Dole, 98, who has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer

The president, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, also thanked former U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho, D-California, who authored an early version of the bill and faced discrimination due to epilepsy, and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, among others. Coelho and Leahy attended the ceremony. 

Biden said he is working with Congress to eliminate “discriminatory” rules allowing sub-minimum wages for workers with disabilities. He also wants to improve care, including for those with long-term COVID-19 symptoms “that sometimes rise to the level of a disability.”

Much work remains

The ADA legislation has been famous for curb cuts, ramps, chair lifts, elevators and other facility improvements. But Harkin told the Register as the nation marked the 30th anniversary of the act in 2020, there still are huge challenges in employment.

“We’ve barely moved the needle,” Harkin said. “The unemployment rate for adults with disabilities today is about the same as it was 30 years ago.”

This story originally appeared in Iowa Capital Dispatch. You can find their work on Facebook and Twitter.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Iowa Capital Dispatch senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.