For decades, former Senator Tom Harkin has actively championed the rights of people with disabilities. First serving in the US House of Representatives and later in the Senate from 1985 to 2015, the Iowa native helped craft and introduce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1988. Although ostensibly retired, he remains active in disability rights and employment issues through the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University. The annual Harkin International Disability Employment Summit, held last November, focuses on ways to boost employment opportunities for people with disabilities. ABILITY Magazine spoke to the busy 80-year-old by phone for a download on how he spends his days.
Lia Martirosyan: Did you realize you wrote a column for ABILITY Magazine for 14 years.
Tom Harkin: Yeah. Wow.
Martirosyan: What makes up your days now that you’re retired, other than the summit?
Harkin: Working with the Harkin Institute. It does things other than the summit, of course. We have different divisions of the Institute on Health and Wellness on retirement security, labor and employment. We have a lecture series. We have students. I spend my time with that. And I do some writing. I travel and I speak at various forums. I would say probably nine times out of 10, I speak on disability issues, and maybe one time out of 10 on health and wellness.
Martirosyan: So have you partnered with Humanity International (past article)?
Harkin: That is correct. We have partnered with Humanity International, and we’re doing our next summit in Paris on April 8-9, 2019.
Martirosyan: Are promoting ADA and CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities) during the next summit?
Harkin: Yes, in the broad sense. But the summits, in the narrow sense, are geared toward promoting the employment of persons with disabilities in competitive, integrated employment. That’s the focus of the summits. Just think about it as job, employment and careers, too. The other aspects of disability rights—accessibility, education, healthcare, and all the other things—we don’t much get involved with. Ours is simply focused on businesses and getting them to understand that persons with disabilities can be their best employees, that private-sector companies that have employed persons with disabilities have found that their bottom line improved, they made more money because persons with disabilities are more motivated; they work harder, they’re more loyal and they don’t turn over so often. They focus on their jobs. Absentee rates go way down. Employers find that persons with disabilities make them money.
Martirosyan: I don’t know why it’s been so difficult to get that message across after all these years. I’m not sure what the disconnect is.
Harkin: It’s inertia. Human resource (HR) facilities at all these companies haven’t reached out. And old mindsets. Sometimes attitudinal barriers are the worst to crash.
Martirosyan: I know. We’ve been publishing the magazine for 28 years with the aim of trying to change attitudes, and it’s still such an, uphill battle.
Harkin: But I’ll tell you, it’s getting better. More and more, I’m very encouraged. I keep saying we’re at a tipping point here, because more and more companies have found what I just said. When they employed persons with disabilities and had to make maybe some modest changes in the workplace for accessibility, it really added to their bottom line, because of the productivity quotient of persons with disabilities. I don’t know if you saw the recent report from Accenture?
Martirosyan: Yes, the employment company?
Harkin: Yeah. They just did a four-year study. You could look it up. It just came out about a month ago, I think, at the end of September. They did a four-year study of 140 companies. They compared these companies based on what they called the “Disability Employment Index.”
Martirosyan: Right, I know about that.
Harkin: They studied 140 companies over four years. Here’s what they found: the top quartile of companies—well, it was about 40 companies that rated the highest on the disability employment index—had higher net earnings. I think it was almost double, and a higher profitability. They had higher earnings before expenses, higher profitability, and higher net earnings than the other companies that scored low on the disability employment index. What they showed was that companies did better on employment of persons with disabilities and made more money, basically, over a four-year period of time. So there you go. That’s why I say we’re kind of at a tipping point. Companies are now looking for employees, and the job market’s kind of full, at least in America, and they’re wondering where they can find quality employees. Well, the disability community is one place where they can now find them, and they’re looking at things like the Accenture report and what other companies have done. I think we’re going to see more of a push in the near future by HR to reach out and do more—
Martirosyan: —outreach to hire?
Harkin: Yes, outreach to hire, exactly.
Martirosyan: We’ve been in this space for many years. I don’t know if you remember, but we created the first employment website back in 1995 to help companies find people with disabilities through abilityJOBS.com.
Harkin: Oh yes.
Martirosyan: So you’ve now passed the torch on disability issues to Senator Tammy Duckworth in Congress? Is that what I saw on your video from yesterday?
Harkin: I think both Senator Duckworth and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. When I left the Senate, Senator Duckworth wasn’t there yet, so we sort of passed the torch to Senator Casey, but now he’s got help in the form of Tammy Duckworth. So we’ve got two strong leaders now in the Senate.
Martirosyan: That’s great. We have not talked with her yet. We’re looking forward to speaking with her. She seems like a powerhouse, and wonderful person.
Harkin: She’ll be good.
Martirosyan: I was wondering who was going to pick up the torch. I was happy to see your talk with her yesterday on YouTube. She seems quite knowledgeable for the short amount of time that she’s acquired her disability. She seems like she gets it.
Harkin: That’s true.
Martirosyan: How did the merger come together with Humanity International?
Harkin: When we first launched these Harkin Summits in 2015, we had our first planning committee and reached out to Handicap International and Hervé Bernard in France. Bernard came over for the meeting and agreed to help us. So we’ve been working with Handicap International since then. They helped us get started, helped us form our committee and how we do things. They’ve been around, as you know, for a long time. They just changed their name last year to Humanity & Inclusion. Out of them working with us, they wanted to sponsor the summit in Paris, and we said yes. So it’s a joint effort between us and Humanity & Inclusion. We hope we can take that and go to other countries with it, too.