The true tale of a little brother who became a senator who became the driving force behind the Americans with Disabilities Act. Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is the man responsible for the call heard around the world for disability rights.
All stories are love stories, wrote To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee.
This story is no different, and it starts with a little boy.
On Nov. 19, 1939, a young Slovenian immigrant mother and her coal miner husband welcomed their second son into the world, bringing the population of the town of Cumming, Iowa to a whopping 150 people.
They named him Thomas, called him Tom, and soon Tom was doing what second sons usually do—following his older brother Frank around and learning about the great, big world.
What made this Harkin brother duo different from most was that Frank was deaf, which didn’t mean much to Tom, but to the great, big world, it meant a lot.
One day, when Tom was still quite small, Frank “just sort of disappeared,” recollects the now-venerated Tom Harkin, a gentle, quintessentially Midwestern man and five-term Iowa senator. As with most deaf children then and for decades to come, Frank was shuttled out of sight to a state school, the Iowa School for the Deaf. The school was originally called the Iowa Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, and although the name was officially changed in 1892, unfortunately, the original moniker stuck.
“One time my brother was home, maybe Christmas, and someone was talking about the ‘Iowa School for the Deaf and Dumb.’ I remember my brother saying, ‘I may be deaf, but I am not dumb.’ That made an impression. I was really young. I thought, wow … I’ve never really thought about that before,” says Harkin. It had never occurred to him that anyone would think Frank was unintelligent because he couldn’t hear—but Tom was learning that the way he viewed Frank and the way the world viewed Frank were two different things.
And he didn’t like that very much. The injustice dealt to people with disabilities hit Tom like a punch in the face one day when he and Frank shopped at the local grocery store.
“A clerk came up to [Frank] and asked him, ‘Can I help you? What are you looking for?’,” says Harkin. “My brother always kept a little notepad in his breast pocket and a pencil. So, he wrote, ‘I’m deaf; write it down.’ [The clerk] didn’t look at him for a second, then turned to me and said, ‘What does he want?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Don’t ask me, ask him!’”
“It was like he just … disappeared,” says Harkin. “I’ll always remember that. She just all of a sudden treated him like less than human. [As if] he wasn’t even worth trying to communicate with.”
Tom was sick of people trying to make Frank disappear because one small part of him was different. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Tom saw Frank robbed of work opportunities, paid dismal wages—for no other reason than the world at large assumed it could decide what Frank was capable of and could define him solely based on a characteristic that did not affect his ability to think, feel, communicate or want fulfilling work and relationships, like all people.
Then, something different happened.
One day, while Frank was miserably working as a baker because that was one of the three jobs deaf people were “allowed” to have at that time, a machine mogul who was a regular at the bakery decided to give Frank a chance. The magnate gave Frank a job as a machinist in his plant. In short order, Frank became the best, most productive machinist the man had ever hired. Why? Because the factory noise didn’t affect Frank at all. Frank’s “disability” was the greatest asset to machinists, and the magnate went out and hired several more deaf workers because they were the best in that environment and the best for his bottom line.
“One year, I went to the annual Christmas party with my brother,” says Harkin. “Mr. Delavan, the owner of the company, was up on the stage with the mic, talking about what a great year they had; the usual stuff. Then, he called Frank Harkin to the front of the room.”
“So, Frank walked up to the stage, and Mr. Delavan had a sign language person there signing,” continues Harkin. “He said that he wanted to recognize Frank Harkin because that was his tenth anniversary of working there. In ten years, Frank hadn’t missed a day of work and hadn’t been late. In ten years. No matter how bad the snow got in the winter, Frank went to work. He got a gold watch.”
Tom saw his big brother respected, valued, and honored for what he could do. He witnessed the change in Frank when his brother was given the opportunity to succeed at something that interested him.
“People are held back not because of their disability, but because structures are in place that are in their way,” Harkin says. “The problem for people with disabilities is with society and how it structures itself physically and attitudinally.”
“Inclusion is not something we just talk about. It has to be actualized.”
As far as Tom Harkin was concerned, injustice toward people with disabilities could not stand. After years of working as a lawyer in Iowa and serving as an Iowa congressman, Tom got elected to the U.S. Senate.
The attitude that people with disabilities could not do and therefore did not deserve to be treated as fully human was something Tom Harkin decided to meet head-on. Inspired by Frank and so many other Americans who had visible and invisible disabilities facing discrimination “because of the artificial divide,” Senator Harkin undertook the enormous, delicate job of gaining bipartisan support for legislation protecting the rights and elevating the humanity of people with disabilities.
In 1990, he sponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act, winning enough support to pass this sweeping, landmark legislation into law. The ADA gave every American the benefits of sliding doors, closed captioning, ramps, and accommodations at work and school. It obliterated the physical barriers keeping people with disabilities from having access to basic rights. The comprehensive inclusion of this monumental achievement inspired other nations to follow suit, creating a domino effect of disability rights for people around the world and ushering in the era of inclusion that elevates us all.
A More Equal World
From the Senate floor the day the law passed, Tom Harkin used American Sign Language to tell his colleagues, the American people, and President George H.W. Bush: “Mr. President, today was my proudest day in 16 years in congress. Today, congress opens the doors to all Americans with disabilities. Today, we said no to fear, no to ignorance, no to prejudice.”
“Inclusion is not something we just talk about,” says Harkin, reflecting on the thirty years that have passed since the ADA. “It has to be actualized.”
Even though we still have long strides to make in equal work and equal wages, Sen. Tom Harkin is proof that big hearts grow in small places. He is proof that people who believe we can work together to change the world are often right.
We Include could not exist without his efforts for disability rights. We know we stand on the shoulders of this humble American giant. Tom Harkin has demonstrated with his life what an ally for people with disabilities can do when love for each other inspires us to fight for what’s fair.
Senator Harkin, we salute you.