By YVONNE FRENCH
Disability rights champion Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told how his brother's deafness spurred him to change U.S. law to ensure civil rights for 49 million disabled Americans.
His comments came Oct. 5 during a keynote address for the Library's observance of Disability Employment Awareness Month. Sen. Harkin was the chief sponsor of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.
Sen. Harkin said he became interested in helping people with disabilities because his brother, Frank, became deaf as a result of spinal meningitis at the age of 7.
"He was sent away to what was then called the Iowa School for the Deaf and Dumb. Frank always told me, 'I may be deaf, but I'm not dumb.' While Frank was at the school, he was told he could be one of three things: a printer, a cobbler or a baker. I knew he had unlimited potential, but he faced huge barriers. It wasn't Frank's disability that held him back, but the physical and attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face."
Sen. Harkin said he sees ADA as a "ramp, not a moving walkway. People with disabilities still have to exert energy, effort and responsibility. They have the opportunity to get to the top because now we have broken down the barriers and provided a structure." They now have a legal recourse if they feel they are being discriminated against, he said.
Sen. Harkin also said that Congress recently reauthorized the Rehabilitation Act and the Education of the Deaf Act; may soon vote on the Assistive Technology Act to help people with disabilities get the assistive technology they need to participate in all areas of society; and may soon vote on the Work Incentives Improvement Act to remove some of the "health care disincentives" people with disabilities face when they want to return to work. In some cases, disabled people who return to work receive less money than if they stayed at home.
Sen. Harkin said next year he hopes to address the issue of personal assistance services so people with disabilities can move out of nursing homes and back into their own homes.
He took the opportunity to thank Nancy Jones, an attorney in the American Law Division of the Congressional Research Service, for her "invaluable assistance on every piece of disability legislation I've worked on."
Sen. Harkin defeated an incumbent in 1974 to win a seat in the House from Iowa's 5th Congressional District. In 1984, he again challenged an incumbent and won election to the Senate. He was reelected in 1990. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic presidential candidate in 1992. Iowans again returned him to the Senate in 1996, making him the first Iowa Democrat to earn a third term in the U.S. Senate.
Beecher J.E. Wiggins, director for cataloging, who delivered closing remarks, said the Library has worked to improve working conditions for people with disabilities by establishing ADA awareness training for staff and hiring a disability employment manager. He told how he and several staffers in his cataloging unit had asked a deaf colleague to teach them American Sign Language 25 years ago. "It made a better workplace because we were able to communicate, both to get work done and socially," Mr. Wiggins said.
About 15 members of the Library of Congress Deaf Association attended the talk and thanked the senator afterward.
Sen. Harkin was introduced by Deputy Librarian Donald Scott, who said the Library employed 353 staffers classified as persons with disabilities as of Sept. 30. Of those, 76, or 1.7 percent of the 4,500-person workforce, are considered to be severely disabled.
"We are not satisfied with those numbers and we are continuing to work with outreach because we need to do better," said Mr. Scott.
Mr. Scott was introduced by Bill Haig, the Library's Disability Employment Program manager and ADA coordinator. Mr. Haig is working with management to expand the Library's disabled workforce by creating more work-at-home opportunities for people who are severely physically disabled.
"Without real commitment from top-level management, the program for persons with disabilities would not be as viable a program as it is today," said Mr. Haig.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.