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Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on the Americans with Disabilities Act

Free Media
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Wednesday, July 26, 2000; 9:30 a.m. EDT

On July 26, the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrates its 10th anniversary. The landmark bill protects the civil rights of persons with disabilities at the basic levels of government and in the public and private sectors of employment.

In what ways has this bill helped people with disabilities? What, if any, kind of provisions can we expect in the future?

Tom Harkin
Sen. Tom Harkin

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, is serving his third term in the U.S. Senate. He serves on various committees, including Health Education, Labor and Pensions and Appropriations. Sen. Harkin was live online to talk about the ADA and its legacy on Wednesday, July 26.
The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Free Media: Good morning Sen. Harkin and welcome. Can you put into context for us the significance of progress made since passage of the ADA? Going forward, what do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing disabled people in terms of legal protection?

Sen. Tom Harkin: I believe the last 10 years has accomplished a great deal. ADA opened new worlds to people with disabilities. More people with disabilities are going to school and work, they're voting and traveling, going to restaurants with their families -- in other words becoming more integrated in society. The greatest challenge facing us now is to provide the support for community based services and personal assistance services. We still have too many people not working who can work and want to work. I will say three other things. We have to be concerned about genetic discrimination, hate crimes, the digital divide --we want to make sure people with disabilities are included in the new digital age.

Silver Spring, Md.: What are the ADA regulations concerning learning disabled in the workplace?

Sen. Tom Harkin: The same as any other disability. Reasonable accommodations must be provided and a person cannot be denied a job for which he or she is qualified on the basis of a disability...even if it's a learning disability.

Baltimore, Md.: This is not going to be a politically correct question (my apologies), but I am truly curious.
How much is too much? By that, I mean how far do we require people to make special allowances and arrangements for people with disabilities? It is one thing to provide a ramp so people can access a building, but how far do companies have to go? If I want to hire for a position which requires someone to talk to multiple people on a daily basis, is it my responsibility to provide a translator for a person who is otherwise qualified but cannot speak or or hear? Who pays for this?

Sen. Tom Harkin: First, a study was done called the Sears study, named after Sears and Roebuck, and the average cost for accommodation was $121. Seventy percent of accommodations cost nothing. The term "reasonable accommodation" was used in the law. There was language surrounding that talks about what would be reasonable. I don't know this specific case that you mention, but if an employer can show that this would be an undue burden, they wouldn't have to do it. For example, let's say you have a small business employs 20 people. They have a position where a person with a disability was qualified for the position but required a full time interpreter or reader as an accommodation; that would be an undue burden. But lets say it was General Motors that employs thousands of people. In that case it would not be an undue burden.

Tewksbury, Mass. : How do you think each of the presidential candidates will handle the issues of the disabled? Thank you.

Sen. Tom Harkin: Well, first of all, Vice President Gore was one of the original cosponsors of the ADA. I was the chief sponsor and he was in the Senate and he helped me get it through. He has committed himself to providing community based services. And he has that record. Gov. Bush says he supports people with disabilities also, but I do note that Texas -- joined with Georgia -- fought to say that a state would not have to provide community services. The Supreme Court said a state had to provide the least restrictive environment. Texas opposed that finding and the attorney general of Texas filed that and that attorney general works for Bush; so his record is not that good on that side of the issue. We have always tried to make disability issues non-partisan, but I do believe they're important enough to be discussed in a presidential campaign.

Houston, Tex.: My daughter has spina bifida, uses crutches and a wheelchair. Do you realize how many people are now "handicapped"? Pretty soon there will no longer be parking spaces for the truly disabled. The people, especially elderly, feel they deserve these spaces and more and more are getting them. I have seen them drive to a mall, park in a handicapped space, then walk miles in the mall!! What are you doing to tighten this law!!!

Sen. Tom Harkin: We defined disability in the law. We provided for the spaces. But anyone who fits the definition qualifies. It's up to the state and local communities to decide how many spaces to have and who gets the stickers. And that is something that has to be taken up with your local government; and that's an enforcement issue.

Fairfax, Va.: Can you provide a tax break for disabled persons who want to work and not accept handouts?

Sen. Tom Harkin: Last year we passed the Work Incentives Act which provides that a person with a disability can go to work but still keep their health care under Medicaid. That was the most important barrier for disabled people working. And so we just got that accomplished last year. We now have to look for other items where we might provide tax incentives. I will point out that there is a tax credit of up to $5000 to any business that makes an accommodation to hire a disabled person. For example putting in a ramp, modifying a door or bathroom etc.

Washington, D.C.: How much money do you think lawyers have made off of the American's with Disabilities Act? How much has it cost the taxpayer?

Sen. Tom Harkin: I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that the cost has been far outweighed by the benefits. The costs have been minimal considering the increased work force and productivity of people with disabilities. That's sort of the same argument we hear about taking people out of institutions -- that it is going to cost more for community based assistance. We have proven that wrong because we don't take into account the new earnings that people with disabilities make and the taxes they pay. Plus the saved cost of keeping up these huge institutions.

I am sorry but I have to head downtown to the FDR memorial with President Clinton. Between one and two thousand people will be there to celebrate the anniversary of the ADA. And I believe that the Americans with Disabilities Act really stands for the American dream for all.

Free Media: Thank you Sen. Harkin for joining us today and thank you to everyone who participated.

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