Senator Tom Harkin

After 40 years in Congress, ABILITY columnist Senator Tom 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.


Cooper: You’ve had one of the longer careers in Congress; 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.”


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.

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.

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?

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.


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.

Senator Tom Harkin and Lia Martirosyan
Senator Tom Harkin speaking to Lia Martirosyan

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 we listened to the voice we had to go to Google Translate. You have to have Wi-Fi to translate.

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.

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: In America 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 all their printed material, so it’s more accessible. It’s taking all that content, all the printed materials, and everyone’s using smartphones, so now it saves money on having to print Braille. 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 said, “How come you don’t have at least 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?

Cooper: While you were talking, I was thinking it would be so wonderful to have you be in a chair and show you how after all those years of your battle with the ADA where things stand. We were in New York yesterday for an interview, and we get to the subway and had to go so far to find the elevator, and then even the map showing where the elevator was was a challenge to read, and then we go into the elevator, and it’s this convoluted thing. It’s being used as a urinal for people who are in distress. You can hardly breathe in that thing. We try to do mass transit wherever we go, we kind of like it, and it’s so ironic that the US is so bad. When we travel in Japan or South Korea, it’s so accessible. It’s unbelievable what they’ve done.

Senator Harkin: The subways are more accessible?

Cooper: Yes. They have it set up to where they call ahead, “Somebody’s in a chair,” and people actually run with these little ramps and put them down wherever it’s not accessible. They’ve got it all mapped out.

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 don’t 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. We looked around saying, “Is this considered historic?” So we go to interview this baker and it isn’t accessible. Even though she’s dealing with disabilities, her focus was on celiac disease and how devastating that can be to people. But when it came to mobility, that wasn’t in her mindset, so her little restaurant wasn’t accessible. We have this tendency to have these—

Senator Harkin: —blinders, yeah.

Cooper: It would be so wonderful. 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.”


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

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 social media, and the room 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.


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... You can read the complete article and the full magazine, including all of the photos in our Digi issue, by clicking "Like" on our Facebook page

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Excerpts from the Austin Basis Dec/Jan 2014-15 Issue:

Janet LaBreck — Modern Day Commissioner

China — Weihong Li

Senator Tom Harkin — HIS Legacy, OUR Equal Rights

Austin Basis — CW's Beauty & the Beast

Special Olympics — Patrick McClenahan Leads #LA2015

Articles in the Austin Basis Issue; Ashley Fiolek — Never Halfway!; Humor — Oh, Life; Geri Jewell — Tis the Season to Remember; China — Braille, My Twist of Fate; Janet LaBreck — Modern Day Commissioner; Senator Tom Harkin — HIS Legacy, OUR Equal Rights; Special Olympics — Patrick McClenahan Leads #LA2015; Austin Basis — CW's Beauty & the Beast; Long Haul Paul — A Distraction from Beyond; Bad Boys — EEOC Sues Dillard’s for 2 Million; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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MV-1 Senator Tom Harkin