Senator Tom Harkin – ADA author and ABILITY Magazine columnist

tom harkin lia martirosyan chet cooper
Senator Tom Harkin, Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper

After 40 years in Congress, ABILITY columnist Senator Thomas Harkin retires in 2015. During the decade he spent in the House of Representatives, and 30 years in the US Senate, he’s unparalleled in the attention he’s brought to disability related issues, and the legislation he’s helped get passed to make America accessible to all. Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper visited Senator Harkin in his Washington, DC, office, where Michael Gamel-McCormick, his disability policy director, and Allison Preiss, his press secretary, joined in the conversation.

Senator Thomas Harkin: You’ve been putting out ABILITY Magazine since 1991! Thank you very much for allowing me to do articles over the years; Allison and I work on them together.

Chet Cooper: Thank you. It’s been our pleasure. We actually launched in 1990, just as you were putting the finishing touches on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I was six years old.

(laughter)

Cooper: You’ve had one of the longer careers in the Senate; what got you into politics?

Senator Harkin: First of all, you have to understand that I don’t come from a political family. My father had a sixth grade education. My mother was an immigrant who spoke little English. We lived in a small town of 150 people. Politics and government were something we never thought about. But my mother died when I was 10, and by the time I was in high school, my dad was old and sick. I was trying to eke out a little job here and there, and a woman wanted me to distribute literature for a person running for Congress, which I did. But that didn’t get me involved; I really didn’t care about politics at all.

Cooper: Did the candidate win?

Senator Harkin: Yes. It was 1958, and I later went to work for him. Years later, I served with Neal Smith as a Congressman, and still later, when I became a Senator and chaired the appropriations committee, he chaired the same committee on the House side. And here I had knocked on doors for him when I was in high school.

Cooper: That’s really coming full circle.

Senator Harkin: It was. He’s 93 or 94 now. He’s not in Congress any more of course. But what really got me involved in politics was when I was at Iowa State University. My history professor, E.B. Smith, ran for the US Senate in 1962 and didn’t make it. Then I got involved with Young Democrats when I was in college, and became president of the organization. Those things really got me interested in politics, government. I was an engineering student. I dropped out of engineering and majored in government and economics.

Cooper: That’s why you’re so intrigued with the coding, the engineering side of you?

Senator Harkin: Exactly. Both my older brothers went to Iowa State and became engineers. I was always good at math, science, physics and all that kind of stuff. But becoming interested in government and politics got me started.

Cooper: Did you just go right into the Senate?

Senator Harkin: After I worked for the Senate candidate who lost, I was in ROTC and, in exchange for them paying my tuition, I put in five years in the military and became a Navy pilot. (Points to pictures.) Those are some of the planes I used to fly in the Navy. After that, I came back to Iowa and went to law school. Then I ran for Congress, lost, ran for Congress again and won in 1974. I served 10 years in the House, and then ran for the Senate in 1984, got elected and have been in the Senate ever since.

Cooper: Do you still fly?

Senator Harkin: Old pilots sit around and do a lot of what we call “hanger flying.”

(laughter)

Cooper: I hadn’t heard that term.

Senator Harkin: Oh, yeah, you get to talk about all the glory days when you used to do this and that. I’m part of a small fraternity of old Navy pilots who flew the F8. We keep in touch. But I don’t do much flying any more. When I retire, I might take it up again. When I was first elected to the House, I used to have a small airplane and I’d fly it around my district, land in grass strips and all that.

I remember once I was supposed to go to a county for a parade in Fremont County the corner, where Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska meet. I had looked on my charts, and there was a grass strip there, which was fine. I was just flying a small Piper Tri-Pacer. So I flew down there with my wife, and I could see the parade, but there was no strip, no tower, no one to talk to. I flew across the border into Missouri, found a runway and landed there. No one was there, but there was a phone booth. I called somebody out of a phonebook and said, “There was supposed to be this strip in Fremont County near Hamburg.” And they said, “Oh, no, that was plowed up a long time ago and planted to soybeans.” Then I had to fly into Nebraska, land in some place to get a car and drive to the parade. I ended up being the last entry in the parade.

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Harkin’s early years in the Senate signing as he talks.

Cooper: At least you made it. Tell us how you got involved in the ADA.

Senator Harkin: After I got elected to Congress, I got involved with the Education of All Handicapped Children Act. I also got involved in issues around deafness, because my brother was deaf. I had seen how he had been discriminated against during his lifetime, how he was thwarted in what he wanted to do because of his disability. But I also saw later on how he was able to overcome it, and finally get a job in a field that he liked. This is an interesting story that’s stuck with me all these years.

They sent my brother, Frank, to deaf school in Council Bluffs (IA). At that time people referred to it as the School for the Deaf and Dumb, and I remember my brother once told me, “I may be deaf, but I’m not dumb.” They told him in high school, that he could be one of three things: a shoe cobbler, a printer’s assistant, or a baker. My brother didn’t want to do any of that stuff, but they said, “Okay, you’re a baker.” So he became a baker.

He didn’t like it, but he turned out to be a pretty good baker. He was a smart guy, intuitive and liked working with things. He was working in this make shop in West Des Moines, and to make a long story short, a guy came in who owned a company that manufactured certain parts for jet engines. His name was Mr. Delavan, and he had started the company during World War II. It was a holdover. So now it’s 1953, ‘54, right in there.

So he got to know my brother, and Frank would teach him some sign language, and this guy thought that was pretty neat. One day he asked Frank how he liked his job, and Frank said he didn’t. Delavan said, “What do you want to do?” Frank said, “I like to work with machines and things like that.” Delavan said, “Well, I happen to own a company. When you’re through here today”—bakers start at, like, 3 in the morning and they get off at 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning—“come down to my place.” So Frank went down there. Through an interpreter Delavan had, he asked Frank if he’d like to work for him. Frank said, “Sure.” So he trained him to work on this assembly line. They had big drill presses and Frank had to drill these little fine holes in jet engine nozzles; it had to be exact, and my brother had big magnifying glasses he’d look through.

Some months went by, and Frank’s foreman on the line, found that my brother was the most productive worker he had. He put out the most parts per hour and made the fewest mistakes. He never had to do anything over. And finally, the foreman figured it out. It was a noisy place, banging, machines going, people yelling, but it didn’t bother Frank one bit. He just kept right on working the machine. Then Delavan went out and hired more people who were deaf, because they turned out to be the most productive. That’s stuck with me all my life, that a person with a disability can actually be more productive than a person without a disability.

When I got to Congress, I started working on deafness. At that time, they were developing decoding machines for the deaf. Jennings Randolph, a senator from West Virginia and I had been working on this. A box had just been developed that would decode that line on TV, I always forget, it is line 21, where closed captions come across. We delivered the first box to Jimmy Carter in the White House around ‘77 or ‘78? They were sold by Sears Roebuck. The National Captioning Institute was started in Alexandra, VA, and they’d made a deal with Sears, which sold them at cost. It was like $100 or so for a set box. I got one of the first four or five for my brother. I took them out to Iowa, hooked it up to his TV, and at that time the National Captioning Institute would make arrangements with TV producers in New York or places like that to prerecord a show. I remember one was The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. So they would caption the thing, and then when they showed it on Sunday night, if you had that box, you could turn it on and see the captions go across the screen.

It was amazing for him to see that and to understand what people were saying. Shortly afterwards, they started putting captions on videotape. Frank always liked action movies, he didn’t want a lot of talk. He loved John Wayne movies. We’d go to the movies together; I’ve seen every John Wayne movie. Now he got these same movies, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Hellcats of the Navy, and God knows what else John Wayne was in, with captions on them. He remembered seeing the movies 30 years earlier and now he could see what they were saying. That was incredible. So as I say, my focus in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was on deafness and communication disorders.

Cooper: Did you work with Tony Coelho? Who came up with the basic of the ADA? Tony Coelho was on the—

Senator Harkin: National Council on Disabilities.

Michael: That was in ‘86.

Senator Harkin: By then, I’d left the House and gone to the Senate. I was still working with the National Captioning Institute, trying to get more and more things captioned. And thinking about what else we could do in that area. Still my focus was kind of narrow, just on deafness. However, I started thinking more broadly when my nephew, Kelly McQuade, got injured in the Navy; he got sucked down an engine on a jet aircraft carrier and broke his neck. Actually, he was a quadriplegic, but he got the use of his hands back, so severely paraplegic. He wanted to go to school, and I remember he tried to go to Colorado State. They lived in Colorado. I remember him telling me they had classes on the second floor and didn’t have any elevators, so he couldn’t get his wheelchair up to the classes.

I thought, “This is nuts! He can’t even go to school!” Around the same time, they came up with this idea of a general civil rights bill, and it occurred to me, they’re right. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, you can’t discriminate on the basis of sex, religion or national origin. But it didn’t address disability. I hadn’t thought about that. So it got me thinking. And I got more and more involved with a broader disability movement in America. That was about the time I came to the Senate, in ‘85. I started branching out, thinking about different aspects of disability law. And then they came out with this proposal for a civil rights bill, and that was in ‘86. When I came here, the Senate was Republican. The House was Democrat. I got elected in ‘84. So ‘85, ‘86, there was an election in ‘86, and the Democrats took back control of the Senate. That opened up other committees. Some of us were approached to be on committees, because there were vacancies. Two people wanted me on their committee. One was John Glenn. He headed government operations, and flew the same plane that I flew in the Navy, so we had that kind of a link, that kind of a friendship. He wanted me on government ops. He was always kind of a hero to me; he still is.

And then Ted Kennedy came to see me. He wanted me on his committee. I was trying to weigh those two. “Geez, I’m friends with Glenn,” I thought, but then again, Kennedy was saying: “You should be on our committee. These are the issues you care about.” He said, “What would you be interested in doing?” I said, “I’d really be interested if you had something dealing with people with disabilities, at the time we used the word “handicapped.” He came back to me and said, “I’ll tell you what. We’ll set up this Subcommittee on the Handicapped, and you can chair it.” And I said, “Kennedy, I’m on your committee.” And that’s how this whole thing started, with me chairing it.

Lowell Weicker (R-CT) was there, and I became very friendly with him. He first introduced an Americans with Disabilities Act. He was a great guy, and I was on the bill with him, but then he got defeated in ‘88.

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Letter from President George Bush honoring Tom Harkin on his work on the ADA

Cooper: So that’s when Tony Coelho stepped in?

Senator Harkin: When did he come to the House?

Michael: Tony was in the House back in 1980. He was there for five terms.

Senator Harkin: I didn’t know him that well at first, but then Coelho picked up this issue in the House. We first introduced it in the Senate, then the House, and Coelho picked it up and went with it in the House. And then I started having hearings on it. In April 1988, Weicker and I introduced the ADA in the Senate. The next day, April 29th, Coelho and others introduced it in the House.

Then, as I said, Weicker lost the election, so I came back and in May ‘89 and introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1989. And Coelho introduced it in the House. And then I had hearings in my Senate subcommittee in May, and a full committee hearing in June. We marked up our agreement in August, and the ADA passed in the Senate in September. Then from September ‘89 to April 1990 it was in the House. They referred it to four committees, so it went all over the House. And then it was considered and passed in the House in May of that same year. It was signed into law in July. That’s the history of it.

Cooper: What happened with the ADAAA?

Senator Harkin: The Amendments Act? In the early days of the ADA, after we passed it, we were focused mostly on transportation and the built environment. Obviously employment was always key, but before people could get jobs, they had to be able to get to work. We needed to have curb cuts, ramps, and subways that were accessible, that type of thing. And then we thought we’d focus on employment. In 1999, the Supreme Court decided the Sutton trilogy cases, have you heard of those?

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Cooper: I didn’t know that it was called the trilogy, but I know what you’re talking about.

Senator Harkin: The Sutton trilogy was Sutton, Murphy, and Kirkingburg. Same day. It was a terrible day. This threw into limbo, for both employers and people with disabilities, on what their rights were under the ADA in terms of employment. Geez, that was just awful! Then we had to go to work to try to overturn the Supreme Court decision. Took eight years, to do that. But you know how things go, first it’s, “You can’t do anything about it,” and that rolls around for a couple of years, and then we start trying to figure out how we could change it. I worked with all these different disability groups. But it took a long time.

The Supreme Court decision was in 1999. In 2001, the House, still Republican. We took back the Senate by one vote, when a Republican became a Democrat. We thought maybe we could do something at that time. But we couldn’t do anything in the House. The House would not consider it. In 2002 we lost the Senate again, so then both House and Senate are Republican, and as you know, 9/11 happened in ‘01, so everybody was just focused on terrorism, the war in Iraq, and all that kind of stuff, we had no possibility of moving anything.

And then after that all faded out, we were able to work with the White House and with the disabilities groups and come up with language to overturn the Supreme Court decision. I had hearings. We introduced the bill in ‘07, and Heuer introduced it in the House, and we passed it in ‘08. It was signed it into law on September 25, 2008. So it years to overturn that.

(laughter)

Cooper: We were just over at the FCC. They asked us to speak about some of the things that we’re doing connected to accessibility. We’re the first magazine to have this code. You use a smartphone, scan it, and it can “read” the page out loud in 58 languages.

Senator Harkin: Get out of town! Every page?

Cooper: Every editorial page.

Senator Harkin: No kidding? If I scan that, it’ll read this whole page out?

Lia Martirosyan: Yes.

Cooper: (shows past issue of ABILITY Magazine) These are the people who developed it in Seoul, Korea. You hover over it and scan it. It works well for people with learning disabilities, for instance I have dyslexia. The software takes the letters and has an algorithm that converts the letters into a dot code. Their scientists were creative in taking more information and converting it down to dots. Then they tapped into Google Translation software. When you listen to translationed text you need to access Wi-Fi.

Martirosyan: You use the text-to-speech function on your phone.

[From a smartphone speaker: “Similar-looking to bar codes used on products at the grocery store, VOICEYE encodes large amounts of data into a small printed square. Using a free app available on your smartphone, scanned VOICEYE codes can be translated and decoded in a variety of ways: print, voice, Braille, or translation.”]

Martirosyan: The function we were just talking about was translation.

Senator Harkin: She’s reading too fast.

check this out

Martirosyan: You have the option of slowing it down.

Michael: Can you also change the voices, and make it a male voice instead of a female one?

Martirosyan: Sure. Or say that I want to change it to Korean; here’s the Korean translation.

Senator Harkin: Amazing! So you were over at the FCC showing them how this can be done?

Cooper: Yes. This is new technology. They call it a “world in a dot.” All of that information is in there for this whole page. And there’s never been that kind of technology with that dense of information before.

Senator Harkin: Are you the only one doing this?

Cooper: We’re the first magazine; we’re also one of the first to actually demonstrate it in the States. What they’re doing with the Korean government is putting this technology on their printed material, so it’s more accessible. We let Stevie Wonder hear, and he was saying the same thing: Why can’t other magazines and other publishers use that? It’s new; we’ll see if they adopt it.

Senator Harkin: Did you demonstrate this at the FCC?

Martirosyan: Yes.

Senator Harkin: And what did they—?

Cooper: They brought us in to show them different accessibility, but what comes of that, we don’t know yet.

Senator Harkin: Wow! It is amazing.

Cooper: I’ve got a personal question. We went to Georgetown to get a bite to eat. Many of the restaurants are not accessible, still today. How are they getting away with that? We talked to one owner and we asked, “Why don’t you have a ramp?” He said, “People with disabilities don’t come in here.”

Martirosyan: “Nobody’s asked for it.”

Michael: That’s my whole story about the theater, too. “Disabled people don’t come here.” Well, where are they going to go?

Martirosyan: It’s something as simple as a ramp.

Cooper: I spoke to an owner of one of these restaurants, and said, “what about a portable ramp. You don’t have to tear out the steps. When somebody needs it, you just bring it out and let them come up. And it’s probably about $100.” “Oh, I don’t know, Nobody’s asked me,” he said. He wasn’t going to do anything.

Senator Harkin: I bet you know this. We put in the law, after the ADA passed, a provision in the tax codes which still exists today. You can get a tax credit of 50 percent, up to $5,000. If you want to put a ramp in and it costs you $1,000 or $2,000, you only have to pay $1,000. You get 50 percent tax credit. That’s a hell of a deal.

Michael: But it’s not used much.

Senator Harkin: People don’t know about it. I bet that restaurant didn’t have any idea about that. Somebody in the city ought to be going around and doing compliance checks on whether or not they’re accessible. They’re supposed to be accessible.

Cooper: We’ve been to too many places that are not. Even in Manhattan, there are still places that are not accessible.

Senator Harkin: —blinders, yeah.

Cooper: I just imagine you walking into a place and saying, “This is not accessible,” and they start talking about the law, and you say, “I wrote the law.”

(laughter)

Senator Harkin: Every once in a while I run into that some place.

tom harkin lia martirosyan
Tom Harkin and Lia Martirosyan

Michael: Universities have been especially bad about converting. That’s partly why you put in the Higher Ed Act that technical assistance centers for university, to get them to comply.

Cooper: Tell me about the technical assistance centers.

Michael: In 2008, when the Higher Ed Act was reauthorized, one of the titles provides for a technical assistance center to help universities transition into more accessible space.

Senator Harkin: Right, that’s part of the Higher Ed Act. But they’re still slow to do it. Sometimes you’ve just got to go after them.

Cooper: The carrot or the stick. It’s our temperament as human beings that you need a carrot or a stick, and some of them need more of a stick than others.

Senator Harkin: Sometimes they need the threat of a lawsuit. A lot of times people don’t have enough money, and they’re busy studying. It’s tough enough getting through life every day, moving around. They can’t be worried about a lawsuit. But sometimes that’s what it takes to get them to move. It’s a shame, after all these years.

Cooper: Tokyo actually has a similar problem in its universities. I spoke at the University of Tokyo, and there were steps to get down to the level where I was speaking. And yet it was a conference on senior citizens and assistive technology, and the location where they held it wasn’t accessible. Even they have situations because their universities were built a while ago.

Senator Harkin: How about accessibility to restaurants?

Cooper: In Tokyo, it was almost similar to Georgetown. Several of them had ramps, and every so often there’d be one that didn’t comply. In that sense it was pretty equal. But their government-run transportation system is excellent.

Senator Harkin: How about their cabs?

Cooper: We didn’t take many because mass transit was so good. Both Tokyo and South Korea, both were incredible.

Senator Harkin: This is a sore point; I’ve been working for years to get taxicabs changed. Finally, New York City is finally moving in that direction. You know if you go to London, every taxicab is fully accessible. I’m in London and a guy is showing me this; of course they have these high-topped cabs. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can hail a cab. They’ve got to pull over. He gets out, opens the door, pulls out a ramp, pulls it down. You can roll in, you can push a baby carriage up or an older person with a walker can go up. It slides back in and off they go. They don’t have that in the U.S.

Martirosyan: Interesting you said that, because sometimes the cabs won’t pull over if they see a wheelchair.

Senator Harkin: Oh, no, of course not.

Martirosyan: So I hide while they hail a cab.

(laughter)

Senator Harkin: I understand that. We’re trying to—Bill de Blasio has said that by—is it 2020?

Michael: By 2020, 50 percent of cabs will be accessible.

Senator Harkin: Fifty percent of all cabs will be accessible in New York. That’s a long time, but I think by the time they get 25 percent or one out of four, somewhere in there, they’re going to find that even people without disabilities want that cab. Because they’re just easier to get in and out of. You’ve got more room, room to put a bag. More and more people are going to want those cabs.
Cooper: When we’re traveling, we often find ourselves funneling in with mothers with their children. They’ve got the strollers, and they want that accessibility as well. Once people experience the greater level of accessibility, they don’t want to go backwards.

Senator Harkin: I’ve often felt that if New York City could do this and move ahead aggressively on it, it would be easy for Washington to follow in its footsteps. We should have every cab be accessible, and it’s not. You still have to call if you want an accessible cab and wait half an hour, or until whenever they show up. I don’t know if you tried that here.

Cooper: No, we just hide Lia until they stop.

(laughter)

Did you ever think of running for President?

Senator Harkin: I did. I ran. You haven’t heard my stock line. I always say that I ran for President once, and some of you may have missed it.

(laughter)

In the early 90’s. I got beat by Bill Clinton in the primary. But I had a good run. In fact, by the end of 1991, I had more endorsements and had raised more money and had qualified in more states than Clinton. But then it all kind of fell apart. Probably the best thing that happened for the country and the best thing that happened for me was that I didn’t make it. I probably wouldn’t have been very good at being President. But I got Clinton sensitized to disabilities issues. In 1990, I got the Television Decoder Circuitry Act passed. That’s another thing no one knows. You know the buttons you hit on your remote and the closed captions that come up on your screen? That was my bill. And later, after Clinton got to be President, I worked on the relay system, telephone relays. I’d been working on it before, but we finally got it through where we set up a relay system. Do you know what a TDD is?

Cooper: Sure.

Senator Harkin: The telephone for the deaf? I used to have one on my phone, we don’t need it any more. It’s where I could call my brother at home, and a light would flash and he would answer the phone by putting it in his TDD and I could be here and type a message and it would flash across the screen. Then I’d punch a button and he’d get it and he’d respond back to me. We were just typing to each other over the phone lines.

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Then we passed the bill on the relay system. That’s where I could call a relay operator in Des Moines, IA, and say, “I need to call this number. It’s a deaf person. He has a TDD.” So they would call and he would get the TDD, and he would still get it across the line, but then I didn’t need to be hitched up to there. I could call him from a phone here, in those days you had those big cell phones. And I could talk to the operator and say, “Tell him I’m going to be here at a certain time,” and the operator could relay back the other person’s response: “OK, I’ll meet you here.” So that relay system got in.

I wanted the first relay phone conversation utilizing this new system to be done by President Clinton. I went to the White House and hooked it up with my brother, in Iowa. Frank got a call from the President. We lived in a small town of 150 people. I had it all set up. We were down at the White House. Clinton’s there. We call the relay operator. “President of the US, please dial this number,” and the line’s busy.

(laughter)

I said, “How can the line be busy, I told him!” The operator’s saying, “The line’s busy.” I call our cousin Marilyn, who lives across the street, and I say, “Can you go over and see what’s wrong with Frank? We’re supposed to be calling him on the phone. I’ve got the President of the United States calling him!” She said, “Oh, I wondered what was wrong. He’s got all these TV trucks over there.” The TV stations had come out to film this. I said, “There’s something wrong. Tell him to hang up the phone or something.”

So she goes over. She comes back, and she said, “He was using the relay system to talk to some friends.” He had forgotten all about it, even though the TV cameras were there. Clinton got a big kick out of that. But we finally got him hooked up, and the President got to call him and talk to him.

Michael: Now companies use text instead of TDD.

Senator Harkin: It’s amazing how technology has changed.

Cooper. Tell us about the committees that you’ve been having around employment.

Senator Harkin: As you know, going clear back to ‘88 I’ve worked on employment. And then we got screwed up by the Sutton trilogy, and then we got the ADA Amendments in ‘08, and in ‘09, to get more people with disabilities working. Then we’re dealing with the damn recession; everybody’s getting laid off. For every non-disabled person who got laid off, three people with disabilities got laid off. Three to one. That was tough. We tried to get the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) done. The last time it was reauthorized was in 2003. I take over this committee in 2009, and I’m determined that we’re going to get a Workforce Investment Bill that has in it a new pathway for young people with disabilities to get into the workforce. You see, in the past, kids with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), get through school, and just drop off the face of the earth. A lot of times they get shunted into sub-minimum wage jobs. We used to call them sheltered workshops. They never got challenged; their skills were never upgraded; and they’re just stuck there. But we know from history that with some support and better training, they can upgrade their skills like anybody else.

So we started working on it. It took me five years to get it done, but we finally got it through and President Obama has signed it into law. Here’s what it does: It provides that young person with an IEP, that vocational rehabilitation must work with that person to provide support services for job coaching, summer internships, internships and jobs, job shadowing, and the like to give them some real-life experiences. Because a lot of young people with disabilities might think, “I want to be a rocket scientist.” Get them a summer job connected to that. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they’ll find out, “This isn’t what I really want to do or I’m not capable of that, and do something else.” That’s what all young people go through.

Then, when they graduate, they cannot go into sub-minimum wage jobs. They have to go into competitive integrative employment.

Michael: They have to apply for vocational rehabilitation services. They have to be linked to them. They have to have a counselor who helps them create a plan, and they can try out a series of competitive integrated jobs, with job coaches, with supported employment and then, only if after a certain amount of time they feel like they just can’t do that level work, that’s the only time that they can go into a sub-minimum wage job.

Senator Harkin: In other words, if I’m running a sub-minimum wage operation, I could not hire you unless first you have tried competitive integrated employment several times, in different occupations, and that you’ve had Vocational Rehabilitation support. I’ll never forget this one guy who said: “You’re setting these kids up for failure. There’s a lot of these jobs they just can’t do.” I said, “Yeah, you know what? That’s life. All of us have had jobs we’ve failed at. I had jobs I failed at when I was young. Why shouldn’t kids with disabilities have the same experience? Try something, if they fail, they can try something else.”

It’s not pity. It’s not the paternalism, that somehow I’ve got to take care of you. No, you’ve got to take care of yourself. All you need is a support service, accessibility, jobs. That’s all. What I wanted to do in the WIA Bill, is to give kid with disabilities a kick in the pants. Just like we give other kids a kick in the pants: “Get out there and do something. Get out there and try something else.” Challenge them. And then, when they get into integrated employment, they’ll find that they can do more than they think they can do. And the employers will find out they can do more. They can become even more productive. They might even get higher-skilled jobs. But they won’t if they’re stuck in a sub-minimum wage job all their life.

Cooper: Are these high school or college or both?

Senator Harkin: Both, but mostly high school. The other part of our legislation is also to get these kids prepared for college, too.

Cooper: Who are the coaches who are helping them?

Michael: In high school, it would actually be a combination of their IDEA teachers and VR. They have to work in partnership. VR has got to come into the schools, work in collaboration with the schools to do that. That’s what helps move things forward

Senator Harkin: And this legislation will force us to put more money into VR, because they’re going to have to do it. We’re looking at 15 percent of VR monies being spent on transition.

Cooper: What about a mentor program? Do you have any mentoring within that component?

Michael: There’s not a requirement to do that, but that makes sense for a school to set up those mentoring programs.

Cooper: We are building an app right now that’s connecting mentorship with people with disabilities who are looking for work.

Senator Harkin: So maybe we should figure out a way to tie that into there. It seems like that’s always been an element that’s been missing, for any first-time employees to connect with other people with disabilities who’ve been in the workforce. You could be a mentor whether you have a disability or not. We could have written that into that legislation. I didn’t think of that. It could be in an amendment.

I wish we talked sooner. You think you’ve covered all your bases. We could have written that into that legislation. I didn’t think of that.

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Martirosyan: Add a little asterisk.

Michael: Or in the regulations we recommend to Secretary Perez.

Senator Harkin: When a bill’s passed, they’ve got to write regulations, and we’ll have him put it in the regulations. Why don’t you help us on that? If you’re going to write a regulation to set all this up, what would you want to put in there in terms of mentoring.

Cooper: We will draft something for you. What are you going to do when you retire?

Senator Harkin: I haven’t the foggiest idea. I’ve been here 43 years and I don’t know what I’m doing.

Cooper: I’m sorry, did you say you want to work with ABILITY Magazine?

Senator Harkin: (laughs) I will continue to work in the field of disability rights. Drake University in Des Moines started an institute, and we’re doing a deal in Des Moines linking the civil rights movement with the disability rights movement. A lot of people don’t think about it that way. That’s the Harkin Institute. I’ll probably be doing some stuff with them, too. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I do want to stay involved. That’s why I’m trying to get the Convention on Right for Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) done. I was in China. I met with a lot of disabilities groups in China, NGOs and others there.
Cooper: We have a partnership with China Press now. We publish their articles, and they publish ours, cross-promoting each issue; this helps to raise global awareness of the disability issue.

Senator Harkin: You know, that federation was started by the son of Deng Xiao-Ping. I didn’t see him, he’s out now. It’s now run by a woman named Zhang Haidi. She’s a person who uses a wheelchair. She’s written a lot of books and is a famous author in China. She had us over to her house for dinner, and her kitchen is all accessible for her. She’s got a great personality; she’s vibrant and movin’ and shakin’. You ought to do a story about her.

Cooper: I’ll make a note to follow up on that. Did you visit China’s Paralympic facilities? It’s incredible, they spent $100 million.

Senator Harkin: The other thing I wish you could do a story on is the NGOs in China. I had a roundtable luncheon with a number of NGOs. Haide is sort of government, funded by the government, and she has to deal with that.

Cooper: So she works with the NGOs to get things done?

Senator Harkin: No, she’s not been working with the NGOs. I’m trying to get her now to meet with them. That government agency is sort of alien to the Chinese about NGOs, but there’s a lot of NGOs that have sprung up. They want to have some dialogue with that federation. They haven’t been able to dialogue with them yet.

The Chinese disabled performers’ group also put on a performance for us when we were there.

Cooper: Oh, yeah, we know the woman who runs that and her husband.

Senator Harkin: Have you ever seen them perform?

Cooper: I’ve only seen photos.

Senator Harkin: They’re extraordinary. And they’re coming to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. They’re just phenomenal.

Cooper: Her husband is part of the group we partnered with, and we’re going to have the first Chinese artists with disabilities showing their art, paintings, and then we’ll do the same in Beijing, where we’ll get American artists with disabilities with their paintings showcased in Beijing for the first time.

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