The recent announcement of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that he will not seek re-election in 2014 is very bad news for Americans with disabilities.
Harkin has been a genuine champion for disabled people. He was a primary Senate sponsor of, and a galvanizing force behind, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even though he was in his first term in the Senate at the time. Later, after conservative judges on the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts issued a series of rulings gutting the ADA, Harkin sponsored the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. This law clarified the meaning of the ADA and restored much of its strength.
As chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Harkin has pushed hard for funding to fulfill the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees a free and appropriate public education for children with disabilities.
He has also worked hard to bring about changes in federal laws and policies that make it easier for people with disabilities to live in community settings rather than in nursing homes and institutions. Harkin has always had someone on his staff who works on disability issues.
Part of Harkin’s passion for advancing the lives of people with disabilities came from witnessing the struggles of his late brother Frank, who became deaf as a child and was sent away from the family home to the Iowa School for the Deaf. In a 2009 speech on the Senate floor, Harkin said of his brother,
“I saw how many times he was discriminated against, whether it was getting a driver’s license, so many things he was told he couldn’t do because he was deaf,” Harkin said. “Why did he have to fight so hard for all of this? Why did he have to struggle so much just to get people to accept him for what he was and who he was and not just to look at the fact that he was a deaf man, but that he was a person of great capabilities?”
The last 30 years have been a time of historic positive change for American with disabilities, and Harkin, more than anyone else in Congress, has made that possible.
At a time when Americans have such an overwhelmingly negative opinion of Congress, Harkin restores our faith that at least some can still rise above pettiness and timidity and fight for justice.
Disabled Americans owe Tom Harkin an enormous debt of gratitude. There will never be another like him.
Mike Ervin is a disability-rights activist with ADAPT.