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After Four Decades, Disability Champion Leaving Congress

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News that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, plans to retire next year is leaving disability advocates pondering a future without their staunchest ally on Capitol Hill.

Harkin, 73, said Saturday that he will not seek a sixth term in the U.S. Senate next year.

“When the current Congress is over, I will have served in the United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for a total of 40 years. After 40 years, I just feel it’s somebody else’s turn,” Harkin said in a statement.

The departure will leave a gaping hole in Congress for the disability community, advocates say. Harkin was the leading force behind the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and has played an active role in countless other legislative efforts promoting everything from education and employment to health care and independent living opportunities for those with special needs.

“Sen. Harkin has been a huge champion in the disability community,” said Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “Moving forward, I hope that we can find someone who can step into his very large shoes and it’s going to be difficult.”

Though Perriello said there are many lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are supportive of the disability community, he was hard-pressed to name another legislator who might step up the way Harkin has. Last year, for example, when opposition emerged over new accessibility requirements for swimming pools, it was Harkin who went to bat for people with disabilities.

“He was the only one paying attention,” Perriello said. “He was the only one willing to stand up whether the issues were big or small.”

Harkin speaks often of his late brother, Frank, who was deaf and whose experiences largely inspired the lawmaker’s efforts to make life better for Americans with disabilities.

While many members of Congress are sympathetic to the needs of those with disabilities, Harkin has a “laser focus” on this population that’s not currently shared by any of his colleagues, said Katy Neas, who worked for Harkin as a congressional staffer in the 1980s and early 1990s and currently handles government relations for Easter Seals.

“Every piece of legislation that comes before him he asks, ‘what does this mean for people with disabilities?’ His dedication to our population is really second to none,” Neas said.

Without such an ally in the Senate, Neas said disability advocates will soon be left to persuade lawmakers who have other items at the top of their agendas.

“We’re going to have our work cut out for us educating legislators about why people with disabilities should be a priority,” she said.

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Comments (8 Responses)

  1. Lauri Sue Robertson says:

    It’s like the Kennedy’s were about people with developmental disabilities, because of their sister Rosemary. The senator will be missed. We can only hope someone else will step into the breech.

  2. Kevin Horrigan says:

    Senator Tom Harkin will be truly missed! He and Congressman Stenny Hoyer have been true advocates for people with disabilities at the federal level. Hopefully one of the more senior members of the Senate HELP (Health Education Labor and Pensions) will fill the void. Check this link for members of the committee

    Kevin Horrigan
    People Inc – Western New York’s largest provider of services to people with developmental disabilities
    khorrigan@people-inc.org

  3. Ryan Kempf says:

    I think with Congress is they need to see us as normal people not as something that needs fixed

  4. Laurie says:

    I hate to see him retire. He has been a staunch supporter of people with disabilities. I am not from Iowa, but I wrote him an email anyway and thanked him.

  5. Diane Joslin says:

    This is, indeed, very sad news for the disability community. Senator Harkin has been the driving force behind many laws passed to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access in education, and in the community.

    I am not from Senator Harkin’s state, but as a parent of a child with a disability I will always be grateful to him for his commitment to protecting my son’s rights.

    The Senator will be missed by many!

  6. Roberta Gallant says:

    The Kennedys cared about people with disabilities because of the sister Rosemary Kennedy
    Other people and I will miss US Senator Tom Harkin sincerely! I hope someone else steps
    into the breech after US Senator Harkin retires next year. Mr. Harkin always represented
    people with developmental disabilities well. I am so sorry to learn that he leaves the
    United States Senate next year.

  7. Mohan Mehra says:

    He will be sorely missed.
    While he was a staunch advocate of people with disabilities, his greatest strength was that he was able to bring people to the table to gain agreement on things that mattered. Be it business leaders to address the agenda for employment, nonprofit organizations to develop a shared purpose, or, other members of Congress to gain support for a piece of legislation. Also, he always seemed genuinely pleased when he saw the achievements of individuals with disabilities.

  8. Malicia Voyles says:

    If all of the parties from different states could get together and help find a man or woman to replace him that would be great. We all have different views but we all want what is best for people with disabilities. I hope and pray for a Godly man or woman to replace him.

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