by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
As we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the passage of the ADA, it is important that we pay homage to the Congressional leaders who worked diligently to have the bill implemented. One of the leading Senators who sponsored the bill was Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose lifelong support for disability rights was significantly shaped by his own formative experiences of growing up with a disabled family member. He cited this experience in his landmark speech on July 13, 1990, the date of the ADA’s passage, which was notable for being the first speech in American Sign Language to be delivered on the Senate floor. Senator Harkin’s dedication to disability rights earned him a place in history as a renowned champion of the ADA and an advocate for social and economic equality for all Americans, irrespective of their ability or disability.
Tom Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa, on November 19, 1939, to an Irish American coal miner and a Slovenian immigrant mother. Growing up in a close-knit working-class family, Tom and his five siblings were instilled with the values of hard work and responsibility, which Tom adhered to by working a series of jobs – on farms and construction sites, as a paper boy and at a Des Moines bottling plant. In addition, Tom grew up with a deaf older brother, Frank, with whom he spent time learning sign language in order to communicate. This experience, together with the disability of his nephew Kelly McQuaid later on, gave Tom a strong empathy for people with disabilities which would later contribute to his lifelong support for disability rights.
Following his graduation from Dowling High School in Des Moines, Tom attended Iowa State University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in Government and Economics. He subsequently served in the Navy as a jet pilot from 1962-1967 and later continued flying in the Naval Reserves. In 1969, Tom went to Washington to join the staff of Iowa Congressman Neal Smith. In this role, he accompanied a congressional delegation to South Vietnam, where “he independently investigated and photographed the infamous ‘tiger cage’ cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island, where prisoners – many of them students – were being tortured and kept in inhumane conditions” by America’s South Vietnamese allies. Resisting pressure to suppress his findings, Tom made public his photos and eyewitness accounts, which were subsequently published in Life Magazine. Consequently, hundreds of abused prisoners were released.
After graduating with his wife Ruth in the same class at Catholic University of America Law School in 1972, Tom returned to Iowa and settled in Ames, where he worked with Polk County Legal Aid, assisting low-income Iowans who could not afford legal help. Ruth was elected as attorney of Story County, becoming the first female elected to the position. In 1974, Tom won his first race for the House of Representatives, where he represented Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District. His energetic, person-to-person campaign proved highly effective in winning the election in a longstanding Republican district. After ten years of serving in the House of Representatives, Tom was elected Senator in 1984, a position that voters returned him to in 1990, 1996, and again in 2002. In November 2008, he earned distinction as the first Iowa Democrat to win a fifth term in the U.S. Senate.
During the debate over passage of the ADA, Senator Harkin was one of the bill’s most strident advocates. Working together with Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patricia Wright of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), he rewrote a more conservative version of the ADA of 1988 than the one written by conservative Republicans on the National Council on the Handicapped. Under this version, the scope of ADA accommodations was narrowed so that the bill would be “more palatable to business and therefore more likely to become law.” The bill was introduced on May 9, 1989, as S.933 by Senators Harkin, Kennedy, and David Durenberger of Minnesota. During the hearings, former Senator Louis P. Weicker provided testimony as a parent of a child with a disability.
During the summer of 1989, Senate leadership and bill sponsors reached an agreement with the Bush administration on major provisions of the ADA. President Bush agreed to support the bill only after sponsors agreed to limit remedies for findings of discrimination largely to those available under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On September 7, 1989, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (76-8) in favor of S. 933. The final version of the bill featured several amendments, including two amendments introduced by Senator Harkin. Under these amendments, if any provision of the ADA was found to be unconstitutional by a court of law, that provision would be severed from the bill, without affecting the enforceability of the rest of the bill. In addition, current users of illegal drugs would be excluded from the definition of “disabled” for the purpose of the ADA.
In arguing for the passage of the ADA, Senator Harkin asserted that for decades, people with disabilities “have been isolated and subjected to discrimination, and such isolation and discrimination is pervasive, is still pervasive in our society. Discrimination persists in such critical areas as employment in the private sector, public accommodations, and communications. Current federal and state laws are inadequate to address the needs of people with disabilities in these areas. People with disabilities as a group occupy an inferior status socially, economically, vocationally, and educationally. Discrimination denies people with disabilities an opportunity to compete on an equal basis and costs the state and federal governments and private sectors billions of dollars in unnecessary spending, stemming from dependency and nonproductivity. President Bush stated earlier this year: ‘The statistics consistently demonstrate that people with disabilities are the poorest, least educated, and largest minority in America.’” In addition, he pointed out that people with disabilities “experience staggering levels of unemployment and poverty,” citing statistics indicating that two-thirds of all Americans between the ages of 16-64 were not working but maintaining that the majority of them – 8.2 million Americans – wanted to work.
Upon the Senate’s passage of the ADA on July 13, 1990, Senator Harkin delivered a speech in American Sign Language, the first of its kinds to be delivered on the Senate floor. He explained that he wanted to speak in ASL to thank his brother Frank “who taught me at a very early age that people should be judged on the basis of their abilities and not their disabilities.” He proclaimed that “today was my proudest day in 16 years in Congress. Today Congress opens the doors to all Americans… The ADA is indeed the 20th century Emancipation Proclamation for all Americans with disabilities. Today the U.S. Senate will say to all Americans that the days of segregation and inequality are over. As I said, by your winning your full civil rights, you strengthen ours. And I thank all Senators for their help in passing ADA today.” The ADA, he further emphasized, was “the most critical legislation affecting people with disabilities ever considered by the Congress… Within a few weeks the ADA will become the law of the land, because of the vision of the disability community. You knew in your hearts what we wrote into law: That discrimination based on fear, ignorance, prejudice is wrong. It is true that I am the sponsor of the ADA, and my colleagues are co-sponsors. However, the ADA is first and foremost the outcome of the extraordinary efforts of the disability community. This is your bill, and you earned it.”
In closing his Senate speech, Senator Harkin dedicated the ADA to the next generation of children with disabilities and their parents, pledging that “every child with a disability will have the opportunity to maximize his or her potential, to live proud, productive and prosperous lives in the mainstream of our society. We love you all, and welcome you into the world… We say whatever you decide is your goal, go for it. The doors are open, and the barriers are coming down…” He recalled meeting with a young girl who had cerebral palsy and his conversation with her about what the ADA would mean for her. She told him, “All I want to do is just be able to go out and buy a pair of shoes like everybody else.” He maintained that this was truly what the ADA was about: “Just letting people live like anyone else. Opening the doors, breaking down the barriers, so that all Americans, regardless of their disabilities or abilities, are treated fairly and decently as coequals in all aspects of American life.” He concluded by urging the adoption of the Senate conference report for the ADA.
Upon his retirement years later, Senator Harkin paid a memento to his leadership on the ADA by closing his farewell address in ASL: “I will never retire from the fight to make this a land of social and economic justice for all Americans. Let me close with a single word in American Sign Language…” He made a sign for America as a country of all people “interconnected, bound together in a circle of inclusion, no one left out. This is the ideal America toward which we must always, always aspire. And with that, Mr. President, I yield the floor.”
In his retirement from public life, Tom Harkin has continued to champion various social causes. His foundation, the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement, actively works to facilitate “collaborative, high-quality, nonpartisan, multi-disciplinary public policy research and analysis dedicated to the issues” that defined his career, and it seeks to foster “active and informed citizen engagement in public decision making and public policy making through education and outreach that expands the knowledge and understanding of these issue areas among students, scholars and the public.” Senator Harkin’s sponsorship and support for the ADA, however, remains an enduring hallmark of his legislative career in light of the transformative impact that it has had on American society. As we commemorate the anniversary of the ADA today, we can honor Senator Harkin’s legacy by continuing to advocate for disability rights so that all Americans, with and without disabilities, may enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.
- Davis, Lennard J. “Ted Kennedy had one thing in common with the heavyweights gathered to negotiate the ADA: Experience with Disability.” https://www.salon.com/. Salon.com, LLC. Published July 11, 2015. Accessed May 2, 2023. https://www.salon.com/2015/07/11/ted_kennedy_had_one_thing_in_common_with_the_heavyweights_gathered_to_negotiate_the_ada_experience_with_disability/.
- Harkin, Tom. Cited in “Moments in Disability History 29 | The Final Push | The ADA Legacy Project.” https://mn.gov/portal/. Minnesota.gov Portal. Accessed May 2, 2023. https://mn.gov/mnddc/ada-legacy/ada-legacy-moment29.html.
- “Moments in Disability History 29 | The Final Push | The ADA Legacy Project.”
- “US Senator Tom Harkin | BillTrack 50.” https://www.billtrack50.com/. BillTrack50 | Federal & State Legislation Tracker. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://www.billtrack50.com/legislatordetail/15769.