How One Iowa Senator Secured Civil Rights For Americans Living With Disabilities

This past weekend, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced he will not seek re-election in 2014, bringing an almost 40 year career in Congress to a close. But as Harkin steps aside, his legacy — particularly his work to champion increased protections for Americans living with disabilities — remains.

Twenty two years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into law. Either law would have been considered landmark civil rights legislation on its own merits — taken together, they represented nothing short of a legislative revolution for disabled and special needs Americans. And those bills were made possible by Harkin, who authored and shepherded them to overwhelming bipartisan approval.

Every handicapped spot in a parking lot, each mechanical wheelchair ramp on a public transport vehicle, and any company that employs qualified Americans with a disability, is only made possible because of the ADA. The law’s provisions — which include protections ranging from anti-workplace discrimination, to public transport and public facility accommodations, to telecommunications support for the visually and hearing impaired — have given millions of Americans the means to pursue independent livelihoods. As one disabled American put it, “I have traveled 18,000 miles between Los Angeles and Bakersfield in an externship, and without the ADA and the Department of Transportation’s provisions, I would not have managed to remain independent and commute.” According to one study, the percentage of disabled Americans citing public transport accommodations as a barrier to their commute dropped from 49 percent to 31 percent between 1989 and 2004.

IDEA applied these same principles to disabled children in the public school system, establishing early intervention and special education requirements for all schools in states accepting federal funding under the statute, as all 50 states now do. And although the concept of providing proper educational facilities and services for Americans with disabilities is now considered an obvious obligation of the American safety net, before IDEA and its precursor law — the Education for All Handicapped Children Act — most of the 6 million disabled American children did not have access to an effective public education.


Granted, not all legislative efforts to assist America’s disabled have enjoyed the successes of the ADA and IDEA. Since many of Medicaid’s benefits for disabled Americans are considered “optional,” they are often a target for austerity measures and deficit reduction. And a recent effort to ratify a United Nations treaty based largely on the ADA was defeated by Senate Republicans, despite widespread support and a last minute lobbying effort by former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.

But Sen. Harkin deserves an enormous amount of credit for the myriad opportunities and independence that the ADA and IDEA have afforded to disabled and handicapped Americans — the freedom to pursue an education, a career, and to effectively navigate the country, rather than be relegated to an institution or permanent home care. Harkin pushed the bill to an outsized victory despite the protestations of business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who claimed that the law would be a “job killer” and cost entirely too much money for potentially little benefit. As the Iowa senator winds down his career, he can be assured that the legislation he pioneered during his time in office will go down in history.