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. ...
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