Dear ABILITY readers,
On March 5, 2011, I had the opportunity to travel to Selma, AL to take part in the commemoration of a significant event of the civil rights movement. Forty-six years ago, a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ended with its participants violently beaten by Alabama State Troopers. This event became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Today Americans gather not only to honor the peaceful marchers, but also to remember one important message of the civil rights movement: groups of ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
While taking part in this commemorative event, I reflected on the progress our country has made as a result of the hard work of ordinary people like those who took part in the march on Edmund Pettus Bridge. The civil rights movement pushed for equality for all people in this country, and many groups drew powerful lessons from that effort. One such group was the disability community. Together its members organized events that, like the Selma march, forced the country to stop and pay attention.
In March of 1990 Bob Kafka and his fellow activists left their wheelchairs and crawled on their hands and knees up the steps of the Capitol building. Bob and his colleagues let it be known the disability community would not be ignored. As a result of efforts like theirs, laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act were passed, giving people with disabilities the right to participate equally in all aspects of society.
But the civil rights movement was not just about social justice. It was also about economic justice, and today Americans with disabilities continue to face unacceptable obstacles in their efforts to join the workforce.
On March 2, I held a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee to address this inequity and, more specifically, to address the need to improve employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. Some sources report the employment participation rate for individuals with intellectual disabilities is as low as 23.9%. This is unacceptable. The purpose of our hearing was to highlight the state of employment of individuals with intellectual disabilities and also to discuss ways to improve outcomes for this population.
During our hearing, many of the testifying witnesses repeated the sentiment that we need to encourage individuals with disabilities to pursue jobs within mainstream businesses. Additionally, we need to encourage businesses to hire individuals with disabilities. Witnesses testified that businesses could hold employees with disabilities to the same job standards as employees without disabilities, and should then provide employees with disabilities the same benefits and wages as those extended to employees without disabilities.
Randy Lewis, senior vice president at Walgreens, described the resounding success his company has had since beginning its initiative to hire more workers with disabilities. Not only has Walgreens’ program achieved its goal of a more diverse and inclusive workforce, but the branches at which Walgreens has implemented the program are the highest-performing in the whole company. It is clear that a diverse workforce has become an asset to Walgreens and a model for other companies.
Attendees of the hearing were also moved by the words of a man named David Egan. David has worked as a distribution clerk for Booz Allen Hamilton for 15 years, where he earns a competitive wage and benefits. David, who has Down’s syndrome, has had the same opportunity for advancement at work—and goes through the same evaluation process—as his coworkers without disabilities. During his testimony, David expressed his desire to see individuals with intellectual disabilities treated as “one of us, not one among us,” and to be fully integrated into the workforce. David’s story beautifully illustrated the pride and independence that come from having a job. I hope we can help many more people with disabilities to achieve their goals, just as David has.
The HELP committee hearing was just a first step. More efforts are needed in order to achieve economic justice for all Americans. I was reminded of this fact while attending the Bloody Sunday event in Alabama and reflecting on the efforts of the civil rights activists who took part in the Edmund Pettus Bridge march in 1965. The marchers’ dedication and commitment to a cause are needed today as we turn our attention to achieving an integrated workforce—a workforce in which individuals with disabilities work alongside those without disabilities. Although it is important to highlight the success stories of individuals with disabilities who are achieving great things in the workforce today, we must work towards an employment environment in which these stories remain inspirational but become unremarkable.
Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
Articles in the Bob Saget Issue; Ashley’s Column — Spring in My Step; Senator Harkin — Advancing the Civil Rights Movement; Moon Feris — Sounding Off for the Deaf?; Arts — The Craft of Education; AJ Green — The Wish That Made a Star; Humor — Fraying Genes; Dyspraxia — Real Emotions; Building Futures — Schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Zach Anner — Oprah’s Globetrotter; Bob Saget — America’s Funniest Philanthropist; Good Food — We’ve Got Taste; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…