Sen. Tom Harkin — A Call to Employers

Circa 2011
3 picture's of Senator Harkin


Dear ABILITY readers,

As we mark the 21st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this landmark bipartisan legislation has played a huge role in our country. Today, the US is more accessible; people with disabilities have higher expectations of what they can achieve; and much of the world now views disability issues as human rights. The ADA stands for the proposition that disability is a natural part of our life experience, and should in no way should limit a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, including employment.

Thanks to the ADA, our built environment, transportation and telecommunications infrastructures are dramatically more welcoming of Americans with disabilities, as well as of visitors with disabilities from around the world. Yet, people with disabilities still experience discrimination. As we enter the third decade since the ADA’s passage, I believe one of the critical challenges we still must tackle is the persistently low-employment rate among Americans with disabilities.

In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began collecting monthly statistics that help us track the workforce participation of Americans with disabilities, at the same time that we track and report on other workers. In a recent report, less than a third of working-age people with disabilities were participating in the labor force. Out of about 15.3 million Americans with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 64, only about 4 million were working in early Summer 2011, while roughly another million actively sought work.

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If we are going to get serious about growing the size of the disability work force, we need to start by recognizing that people with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by the bad economy. Compared to the general workforce, in the last two years, adults with disabilities have left the labor force at six times the rate of adults without disabilities.

The disability labor force, which includes people with disabilities who are either working or actively looking for a job, is a little over 5 million people. At a disability-employment summit hosted last spring by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Business Leadership Network, I challenged the employer representatives in the room to work to increase the size of the disability labor force to 6 million by 2015. Later that week, in a piece he wrote for The Examiner, Tom Donohue from the chamber endorsed this goal, encouraging his colleagues to meet or exceed the 6 million number because “it’s a good thing to do, and it’s good for business.”

Recently my committee held a hearing highlighting strategies for increasing employment for people with disabilities. During the session, we heard testimony from a young woman named Amelia Wallrich. She is about to begin law school in the fall, and she told us that as a member of the “ADA generation,” she had grown up with high expectations for her future. Amelia has made her voice heard as an advocate, as a student and as a volunteer. There are thousands of young people like her, who expect great things of themselves. We must match their commitment to success by creating real opportunities for them to fulfill their potential and lead rewarding lives.

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Employment is not just about labor statistics and corporate goals, it’s about people. I often think of my brother Frank, who inspired much of my work on disability issues. He confronted discrimination and low expectations because he was deaf. But Frank persevered and found a job at the Delavan Corporation, where he could apply his skills and dedication as a drill press operator making nozzles for jet engines. He took enormous pride in his work.

Work helps all of us create structure and meaning in our lives. It will take all sectors of our society to reach the 6 million goal. Let’s make that commitment for the good of all people with disabilities, and for the good of our country.


Senator Tom Harkin

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