THE BLOG
12/15/2014 06:34 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Tom Harkin and the Ladder of Opportunity

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This week Senator Tom Harkin delivered his farewell address to the U.S. Senate after 40 years of public service and profound leadership on disability issues. His landmark work, along with former President George H.W. Bush and others, on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) dramatically increased opportunities for people with disabilities. Because of the ADA there are curb cuts, which are used for wheelchairs and strollers alike -- as well as equal access to buildings, phones, computers and more. This is vital, as people with disabilities deserve to participate in our communities, just like anyone else.

Senator Harkin's leadership as Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) brought us many major pieces of legislation, including the new Workforce Investment and Opportunities Act (WIOA). This new law, funded with $17 billion a year, has tools that can enable millions of Americans to achieve the American dream. As he cited in his address, WIOA enables "intervention in high school for kids with disabilities to prepare for the workplace through summer jobs, job coaching, and internships."

Under section 102 of WIOA every state has until March of 2016 to come up with a "unified plan" to address employment for people with disabilities and others with barriers to employment. Actual job and career attainment in competitive integrated employment are key goals of the new WIOA law. For example, better transitions from school to work for young people with disabilities and others with barriers to employment can create win-win-win scenarios. People with disabilities will be able to achieve dignity and further independence, employers can get real talent they need to succeed, and even taxpayers will be helped. Indeed, WIOA can enable young people with disabilities to move up that ladder of success, while becoming taxpayers too.

Vital action has now moved to Governors, alongside workforce development boards and agencies, as they have responsibility for the new unified plans. They will have to quickly learn about "best practices" in this field so that scare tax dollars, opportunities and lives are not wasted, and our economy and citizens can get the desired results.

In his farewell address Sen. Harkin talked about his "guiding philosophy for the past forty years" saying, "It has to do with that ladder of opportunity... a ladder -- not escalator. A ramp -- not a moving walkway." He was clear to point out "Not one nickel or dime in the ADA is given to a person with a disability. But we broke down barriers, opened doors of accessibility and accommodation, and said to people with disabilities, "Now go on, follow your dreams, and in the words of the Army motto, be all you can be."

Harkin acknowledged that independent living and economic self-sufficiency need more development and also asked for passage of the disabilities treaty.

Most importantly, he called for much more of a focus on jobs for people with disabilities saying:

How many of us know that the unemployment rate among adult Americans with disabilities who want to work and can work is over 60 percent?! Yes, you heard me right: almost two out of three people with disabilities cannot find a job. That is a blot on our national character.

Harkin stated that employees with disabilities can be "more productive, the hardest working, most reliable workers." He also pointed to facts on the ground saying,

I ask you to meet with Greg Wasson, CEO of Walgreens, and Randy Lewis, who was Senior V.P., now retired. Walgreens has hired many people with disabilities in Walgreens' distribution centers, and now has set a goal of 10 percent of their store employees will be people with disabilities. There are others making strides in this area: Best Buy, Lowes, Home Depot, IBM, and Marriott -- to mention some other large companies moving forward in hiring people with disabilities. We need to learn from them what we -- the federal and perhaps state government -- can do to help in this area. We also need to implement policies to help small businesses employ more people with disabilities.

More and more companies today are finding that people with disabilities can be a key part to a winning strategy of improving their bottom lines due to their skills, experience in innovation as well as loyalty as employees. People with disabilities want jobs and the ability to succeed just like anyone else.

Senator Harkin recognized the work of his entire team. He has always been known for picking, developing and listening to his outstanding staff, which has included luminaries in their own rights: Bobbie Silverstein, Andy Imparato and Michael Gamel-McCormick. Chairmanship of the HELP committee will transfer to Senator Lamar Alexander.

Senator Harkin, whose brother was deaf, will continue his championship of disability rights from the private sector. His papers are going to Drake University and the Harkin Institute of Public Policy and Civic Engagement in Des Moines, Iowa.

Senator Harkin closed his final speech on the floor with a beautiful message:

Let me close with a single word from American sign language that has a powerful message for all of us. Let me teach it to you. (PAUSE to sign "America" in American Sign Language). This is the sign for America. All of us, interconnected, bound together in a single circle of inclusion with no one left out. This is the ideal America toward which we must always aspire.