When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed 25 years ago, it gave millions of people new tools to live independently. But the sponsor of the landmark law lamented on Sunday that employment levels for people with disabilities remain near the low levels of 1990.
Speaking at the two-day Ruderman Family Foundation’s Inclusion Summit in Boston, former US Senator Tom Harkin said that while many of the ADA’s goals have been realized, economic independence remains a major concern for those with disabilities.
“It’s a blot on our national character,” he said, emphasizing the need for employers to set concrete goals and actively recruit people with disabilities, just as they do for women and other minorities.
Harkin, the keynote speaker at the Seaport World Trade Center event, received the foundation’s Morton E. Ruderman Award, which officials said recognizes “extraordinary contribution to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish world and the greater public.”
The ADA required buildings and transportation to be wheelchair accessible. It also called for workplaces to provide accommodations for people with disabilities.
Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said there is much work left to be done. Twenty-five years from now, he said, he hopes to see people with disabilities employed at the same rate as the general population.
“If we open the doors and get more people employed, we are all going to benefit,” Harkin said, adding that in some workplaces, a disability can become an asset.
Harkin recalled how his brother, who became deaf at 5 years old, went on to be one of the most efficient workers at a factory constructing jet engine nozzles. The owner decided to hire more people who were deaf, as the noise in the factory did not bother them.
Harkin’s award Sunday came with a $100,000 donation, which will go to the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines.
The money will pay for ventures to help increase employment of people with disabilities, Harkin said.
“It is a great honor for me to get this award,” Harkin said in his speech to the summit attendees. “But economic self sufficiency [for people with disabilities] is the one goal we still haven’t really accomplished.”
Harkin’s speech came at the end of the summit’s first day, which included educational sessions and networking events for the hundreds of activists and politicians in attendance. The event continues Monday, with activities scheduled to focus on similar topics.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said he hopes the summit will help change the conversation around employment.
“We want to take the issue away from charity and see it more as a civil rights issue,” he said in an interview.
The Ruderman Family Foundation, which has offices in the United States and Israel, advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community and beyond.