Disability Isn’t a Dividing Line, It’s a Spectrum

Updated: Apr 30

Looking to the Future of Disability Employment in the US

For a man who spent his entire professional career advocating for disability rights and passing disability legislation within the U.S., former Senator Thomas Richard Harkin is the first to say that there is much more work to do to limit the current inequalities faced by Americans with disabilities, especially within the workforce where individuals with disabilities are grossly underrepresented.

Born into a lower-class family with a brother who is deaf, Harkin realized early on the injustices and societal perceptions that came along with a disability, where “people were just isolated from society” and treated as less than human. This personal perspective was something he has carried closely through his entire career, culminating in his co-sponsorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 that attempted to undo the systematic discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA was later used as a framework for the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

And yet, the ADA on its own is not enough to unravel generations of systematic injustices. Harkin, now retired from his place in Congress, sees work that needs to be done to move disability advocation forward into the future and establish a country where all individuals with disabilities are represented and protected in their careers.

When asked what he would change about the ADA, Harkin points first to Title I, which covers employment for individuals with disabilities. He’s adamant that the stipulations of the legislation did not do enough to increase the employment opportunities of individuals with disabilities in the workforce.

The unemployment rate of Americans with disabilities is one of the highest of any minority group and yet it is not often included under diversity portfolios of employers. Instead, diversity tends towards race, gender, and sexual orientation, stepping over the group of Americans with disabilities that are historically considered a ‘burden’ on employers. But is that true? Harkin is adamant that it isn’t. With a few slight accommodations at the workplace to ensure that a job can be performed, individuals with disabilities are loyal, hardworking, and offer profound insight and perspectives that aren’t often heard.

What is needed for the future? Role models. Harkin points to the power of being the first to burst past barriers on the way to accurate representation and thus equal consideration in American legislation. We have seen it as female legislators burst through barriers, and again and again with the first African American legislators, the first Latino legislators, the first Native American legislators, the first openly gay legislators -- if a number of individuals with disabilities continue to find their way to Congress and local public offices, perspectives and voices may continue to be gained and young people empowered to change the trajectory of American society.

As Harkin insists, the time for individuals with disabilities to be pushed into the backseat is over. It is time for disability advocates to push society forward towards a future of accurate representation and diverse perspectives. It is time for individuals with disabilities to gain their voices in the workplace and on the national stage.

Written by Ryan Trombly

Ryan Trombly was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy when she was eighteen months old. The disability causes right-side hemiparesis that affects the entire right side of her body, weakening her muscles and limiting her mobility in everyday activities. Despite this, Ryan had strived to live a normal, independent life without any barriers and hopes to use her voice to advocate for the disability community.

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