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Harkin Statement at the Senate HELP Committee Field Hearing: “The Americans with Disabilities Act at 22: A New Generation of Iowans Approaches the Labor Force with High Expectations”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will come to order.  The title of this hearing is ‘The Americans with Disabilities Act at 22:  A New Generation of Iowans Approaches the Labor Force with High Expectations.’

“Later this month, on July 26, in celebrations across Iowa and the nation, we will mark the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ‘ADA.’ Thanks to the ADA and other civil rights laws, Iowans with disabilities have far greater opportunities to participate fully in the workplace and in the life of their communities.   I was honored to be the Senate sponsor of the ADA during my first term in the Senate – work that was inspired by my older brother Frank.  Frank became deaf as a child, and refused to settle for the low expectations of some of the professionals who told him that his job options were limited to being a baker, a cobbler, or a printer’s assistant. 

“During Frank’s lifetime, I saw first-hand how communications access improved for him and hundreds of thousands of deaf and hard of hearing people thanks to the ADA and other laws.  It has also been exciting to see how captioned television, a critical accessibility improvement for Frank, has proved so popular for hearing people in noisy environments like sports bars; and how the proliferation of wireless telephones has made text messaging an easy way for deaf and hearing individuals alike to communicate in real time.   Laws like the ADA have helped America to innovate and increase accessibility—and modifications like curb cuts benefit not only people with mobility impairments but also others, including parents pushing a stroller and travelers pulling roller bag. 

“Today’s hearing is an opportunity to learn about the hopes and dreams of the “ADA generation,” a diverse group of youth and young adults with disabilities who have grown up with opportunities for equality and integration created under civil rights laws like the ADA and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.  In my experience—from working closely with the disability community for decades; from chairing hearings in Washington, DC where young adults with disabilities have testified; and from the many interns with disabilities who have worked in my office -- I am very excited about what the future holds for this ADA generation.  They have grown up in an America that gives them realistic expectations of full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.  They are truly helping to redefine what is possible for people with disabilities to achieve in education, in employment, and in all facets of American life.

“I know that this generation has high expectations for themselves, especially about what they can aspire to in their careers.  The vast majority of youth and young adults with disabilities do not want to drop out of high school, or graduate from high school or college and retire onto a lifetime of Supplemental Security Income benefits and poverty.  They want to work in competitive, integrated settings; they want to achieve economic self-sufficiency; and, given opportunities and appropriate supports, the vast majority of them aspire to find meaningful work and be part of the middle class—with the same hopes and dreams as other Americans.

“We will hear today from three remarkable young Iowans—Emilea or “Em” Hillman, Nate Trainor and Alex Watters—each of whom has translated their personal high expectations into promising employment in integrated settings that is consistent with their interests and life goals.  We will hear from a store manager at the Cedar Rapids Walgreens who will talk about that company’s experience building partnerships and pipelines that are helping youth and adults with disabilities become a valued, integrated part of the labor force.  And we will hear from the leaders of two critical Iowa agencies, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Division of Mental Health and Disability Services, about what their agencies are doing to invest in this ADA generation and help them achieve their career goals.

“Before we hear from the first witness, I want to point out that the inclusive vision and language of the ADA is having an impact not only in Cedar Rapids, not only in the State of Iowa, not only in the United States of America, but also in the rest of the world.  Yesterday, it was my honor and pleasure to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of US ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a ground-breaking treaty modeled on the ADA that has been signed and ratified by 117 countries around the world.  It is my hope and expectation that the US will join that group when the Senate provides our advice and consent later this year.  But I bring up the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the context of today’s hearing simply to point out that Em, Nate and Alex are not just entering a US labor force with high expectations, but they are part of a global generation of youth and young adults who will redefine the disability experience not just in our country but in the rest of the world.”