Iowa Press Special: Americans With Disabilities Act

Jul 20, 2020  | 27 min  | 0 | Podcast | Transcript


This special episode focuses on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—its development and implementation, its impact on current politics and public policy, and legislation at the state and federal levels that may need updating for future generations. Host Kay Henderson and Iowa reporters invite guests to discuss the past, present and future of the ADA. The legislation has deep roots in Iowa politics through former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who shaped the ADA and left a public policy legacy in the realm of disability issues. Those priorities are still championed today through work at Drake University's Harkin Institute and many of Iowa's federal, state and local government representatives.



The following program is presented as part of Move To Include, a public media initiative made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.


Three decades after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, what is the legacy of that landmark bill? What are the current and future challenges for disability communities? A deep dive into issues impacting disabled Iowans on this special edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is a special edition of Iowa Press on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: President George Herbert Walker Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act 30 years ago. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was a lead advocate and sponsor of what has become known as the ADA. We have assembled a panel of experts today to talk about the impact of the ADA and the road map ahead for disability rights. Alex Watters is a disability advocate, currently a member of the city council in Sioux City. Amy Bentley is Policy Director at Drake University's Harkin Institute. And David Mitchell is Administrator for Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Thank you all for joining us.

Henderson: David, let's begin with you. 30 years ago this bill was signed. Do you remember that day?

Mitchell: I do, I do remember it and it was fun because I was a little younger at that point. So I reflect back positively. I really remember a sense of excitement and accomplishment. I was young in the rehabilitation field at the time and it gave credibility to the work that we were doing. And I think there was a great sense of excitement and satisfaction that we were going to see change. There was also a sense of anticipation and a little bit of unknown. What will this do? And how will this impact us? And what will it really mean for people with disabilities and for the work that we're doing? But what a great accomplishment and the work that people like Senator Harkin put into this to create the partnerships and relationships to create that legislation that really today 30 years later continues to make a positive difference for every person.

Henderson: Well, we want to explore some of the questions you just raised. But first, we want to give our viewers sort of a snapshot about what brought you all to the table today. So why did you choose a career on this issue?

Mitchell: Well, my background is in rehabilitation counseling. It was really an opportunity to work with people with disabilities and feel like you were making a difference. It was also a combination of my interests in business because one of the outcomes that we do in vocational rehabilitation is about employment, which really needs to be business led. So as we work with our business partners today and identify their needs and interests and be able to match that to the qualities and talents and interests of our workers, we create a better economy for everybody. It's an exciting time because not only is it the 30 year anniversary for the Americans with Disabilities Act, we're also celebrating 100 years of the public federal vocational rehabilitation program, which originally started in 1920 with World War I veterans. We're also celebrating 50 years of the Developmental Disabilities Act. So what a great combination of legislation that impacts people with disabilities.

Henderson: Alex, tell us your story.

Watters: Honestly I never anticipated being at this table or becoming an advocate for people with disabilities. You see, 30 years ago I had no idea that that legislation would have such an impact on my life. I actually had an accident 16 years ago, two weeks into my freshman year of college, where I dove into 18 inches of water, snapped my neck, C5, C6 vertebrae. I had to do 6 months of rehabilitation in a hospital. I had my whole life kind of turned upside down and had to find out how to navigate a body I no longer recognized. And I went through the process. I utilized services that were available to me because of things like the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was able to go back to college, graduate, went on to get a master's degree, actually worked with the American Association for People with Disabilities out in Washington for a summer where I interned with the U.S. Department of Education, came home, worked on some political campaigns, found out how important it is to have a voice and saw it as an opportunity that well, I better decide to run for office myself and try to make a difference. And so I've tried to do that for my community and also be a voice for people with disabilities because I've had to navigate the system. I understand where things have been extraordinarily beneficial for me and for others, but also the shortfalls and ways that we can improve. And so I'm excited to talk about some of those today.

Henderson: Okay, Amy, your turn.

Bentley: I'll admit that my first really heavy exposure to disability policy was starting to work at the Harkin Institute. So we exist to continue the legacy of Senator Harkin and a large part of that is his work on the ADA and disability issues overall. So we focus a lot on social justice issues, not just in disability but in various areas. And so we really work hard to work with folks like those at the table and to continue that work by providing information, by providing research, by continuing dialogues like this and doing what we can to allow policy makers to make good decisions and for folks like Alex to have a voice in what they're doing and how we continue to move things forward.

Henderson: Amy, this question first to you. What does Senator Harkin consider to be the legacy of the ADA? He's not here to speak for himself, but you're with the Harkin Institute, so give that a try.

Bentley: Yes, he would start by telling you, right away he would start and remind you that there are 4 goals of the ADA when it was implemented. Equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. And in lots of really important ways we have moved forward tremendously on those first three. So we have, people with disabilities have access to our public spaces, we've gone huge strides in the independent living movement and getting people integrated into their communities and into their civic programs and having their lives be more full and complete and not in an institution. Those are really meaningful and powerful things. And I will share that working at the Harkin Institute, one of the first things that you really, you don't realize the impact of the ADA until you're somewhere with the Senator and there's so many people that come up and you hear stories and a father that comes up and says, thank you so much for the work you've done, if it weren't for you my son could not attend mainstream schooling, or if it weren't for you then I couldn't, if it weren't for the ADA ultimately in the work of advocates like Senator Harkin that pushed it until it was passed then we wouldn't have curb cuts, we wouldn't have people in employment. And it has really changed the lives especially of younger people in the United States that have grown up their whole lives, Senator Harkin calls them the ADA generation, in this generation of folks now that have never known a life without accessibility measures, they have never known a life where they couldn't access the United States Capitol Building. But that was a real thing and I think that is the stories that show the impact the most is when you're out in the community and you interact with someone who that impacts their life every single day. And they will be quick to tell you, tell him, thank you and thank you for the work that everyone here does and to continue that. But I would be remiss to not say that he would be quick to remind us that that last goal, economic self-sufficiency that we're struggling on that.

Henderson: Well, we want to talk about that in a little bit. But, Alex, Senator Harkin says that a couple of his regrets are the exclusions in the law, namely two, that historic structures weren't covered and that the airline industry wasn't covered. You have mentioned there are some deficiencies in the law. If you had to start over, how would you change it and restructure it?

Watters: Wow, I think that's a difficult question but a good one to be asking. I think that sometimes we rely too much on those exceptions. I think that there are a lot of institutions or different areas, companies, whatever that have those historic structures that say, well it is historic so we don't want to alter it, we don't want to change that or weaken the integrity of the building, what have you. And so people are excluded from the conversation and I think that's unfortunate. I was fortunate enough to go to a private college in Sioux City where I work today at Morningside and they have historic structures. However, they were always flexible and willing to accommodate by moving my classrooms, moving any meetings that I would have. But I think that we need to really revisit whether that is the best approach or whether people use that as a crutch and say, no we're not going to be able to change that because it's a historic structure and people are excluded from that. The airline industry, I have I guess a different opinion on that. I think that they are missing an opportunity because if you have ever, I understand that none of you here have maybe tried flying with a disability like mine, maybe you have been with someone that has, it is an interesting situation trying to have myself transfer into an aisle chair or them wheel me to my seat or transfer into that. No one told me that being 6'2" and a quadriplegic would be so challenging to get into an airline seat. But it is quite the debacle. I've documented it before because it can be pretty funny. But it can also be pretty sad because there's a lot of risks that go into that. The vulnerabilities with my skin, my health, on being able to make those transfers, it's hard on my caregiver's backs, people like that, that are able to try and take care of me and get me where I need to go. I think it's a business opportunity. If they were more inclusive, if there were more abilities for me to utilize my wheelchair and drive into the plane, lock down safely, think about the brand loyalty that you would have for people with disabilities that would want to utilize that airline. So you take out bulk head seating, four seats in the very front, and you put wheelchair tie-downs, use the same technology that maybe is in your bus system or in my van where if people with disabilities and people that use wheelchairs are not using them you can put the seat right back in there. But on the chance that people are going to need those with wheelchairs, make it easier for them to utilize and that brand loyalty will mean so much to those individuals with disabilities. We're the largest minority group in the United States. Why wouldn't you want to capitalize on that market?

Henderson: David, you have been following this debate for decades. What do you think would be the most effective policy change that would benefit the greatest number of disabled people?

Mitchell: I tend to like to focus on the employment issues and the economic issues that Amy mentioned. So I think some of our public policies that would support work incentives and Alex has actually experienced the cliff effect of benefits and how that impacts individuals to be independent. So I think strengthening those incentives to encourage work not only helps economic return on that but the health and social determents that are so positive when people are working would be an area that we can continue to strengthen.

Henderson: What has been the effect, David, of the global pandemic on services, on employment?

Mitchell: It's a world of change right now and we're learning every day something to do a little differently and a little more effectively. I will say that we're still seeing people get jobs, businesses are still hiring people, things are still happening despite everything going around us and we have to be able to adjust to that. So to be able to work within this new virtual environment is quite challenging and a new way of doing things that we never envisioned in 1990 for sure. I think we're going to see different business sectors develop and strengthen and others will continue to struggle as they don't respond and cope with the changes. So it's that changing world that we're going to have to be able to all be able to be flexible and adaptable to.

Henderson: Amy, Senator Harkin sponsored a discussion a few years ago about the employment of disabled people. What percentage of the community was disabled 30 years ago? And has that demonstrably improved?

Bentley: It has not. As far as the percentage of overall population with a disability has continued. Specific to the COVID crisis I would add that most of the people that are at the highest risk for that are individuals with disabilities, so from a health care standpoint that's also an important thing to consider. The other thing we haven't seen are changes in the number of the overall percentage of people with disabilities that are employed. And so over the last 30 years we haven't necessarily seen fewer people with disabilities or the disability community becoming more economically self-sufficient or employed at a higher level.

Henderson: So what is effective in getting a business to say, these are valuable employees and I want them on my payroll?

Bentley: One of the things we do at the Institute, it was one of the first things the Senator wanted to launch upon leaving office and starting the Institute is we host an international summit every year exactly around that issue. So the Senator left office feeling like, hey we haven't met strides here or made strides here under employment and he felt strongly that what we needed to work on was the business community. So we need to work closely with those employers and help them to see the value of employing people with disabilities. And from what we've seen through those conversations a lot of it is just a lack of awareness that there's still a stigma involved with a person, a stigma and a lack of understanding of how you employ someone with a disability and what that means. There is a lack of understanding of how much it costs. I think there is this perception that it can be very expensive to employ a person with a disability when in fact research shows, and I'm sure David could speak to, that that is hardly the case and that most businesses find that the cost to adapt or change some smell thing is very minimal. So I guess overall my answer would be continue to work with the business community to show the value and the benefit of employing people with disabilities and also to reduce that stigma.

Henderson: David, do you want to jump in?

Mitchell: Yes, I do. And you had asked me about the impact of the virus. I think I'm remiss in not saying the impact on people with disabilities who are typically isolated anyway and now they're even more isolated. And you look at people that have extenuating health situations and the risks involved if they do contract the virus, there's concerns with how the systems work together to support that.

Henderson: Alex, as an elected official you have the ability to pass ordinances at the city level. What is the most effective means of addressing issues? Is it percolating up from the city to the state to the federal level? Or do you need just a national standard to really address some of the issues that you see that are out there that need to be addressed?

Watters: That's a great question. I really think it's a balance, I honestly do. I think there needs to be national improvements and national standards put forth. Obviously then cities, municipalities and otherwise states are going to follow that lead. I think that's very important. However, I think there is also an opportunity at the local level to implement different changes that then the states can catch onto and then we can say, okay if this is working in your local cities and then the states really want to adopt those policies, let's bring it to a national level because ultimately I think it's a conversation worth having and if it works at the state level or it works at the city level why not. A perfect example, I have worked very closely with our parks and recreation department. I believe a lot in quality of life measures and I want to make sure that they're all-inclusive. And so we have looked at we have an adaptive climbing wall so people with disabilities can do a climbing wall. We also have an adapted tubing hill over in Sioux City that people can participate in. We're actually redeveloping our riverfront and putting inclusive playground equipment in that. We have the Miracle League, we just hosted the national tournament for that. There's exciting things that you can do that are inclusive that you wouldn’t even know about and you can do those things easily by working with those local municipalities and really passing some of those ordinances. You could also talk about transportation, making sure you're meeting that need with public transportation as far as where those centers are, making sure they're picked up, an ability to get to work. Those things are somewhat easy to do on a local level. But I think we need to really pressure then the state to adopt some standards and then hopefully the national government can come on board as well. I think that's going to be important.

Henderson: I used the Google and tried to figure out what percentage of elected officials in our country are people who have a disability. I couldn’t find really accurate data. Alex, if people come to you and they say, I want to run for office but I'm just a little bit concerned, what would be your advice to a disabled person?

Watters: I think the most powerful thing that you have is your story. And I think that can be difficult. Even just claiming that you have a disability can be difficult because the reality is there are a lot of invisible disabilities, people don't know what you're going through, they're not always as visible as mine, a big fancy power wheelchair. But what I would recommend to them is utilizing the power of their story because often times as I have if I explain to you what I went through, if I explain to you my situation, how I have had to navigate different programs, how I've had to work and collaborate with different individuals, how I've had to implement and become adept at problem solving ability, all of these different things are skill sets that we need in our leaders. And so if you encourage them to find strength in their story and utilize that to really establish their platform and what they would bring to public office, I would encourage anyone that wants to make a difference to step up and be that change.

Henderson: David, vocational is in the name of your agency. What is the access to apprenticeships, to community college? How can those things improve so that someone can have a vocation or a profession?

Mitchell: One of the exciting things happening over the last three years with the passage of the Workforce Innovation Opportunities Act is the connection with students with disabilities and how we improve transition programming for our secondary and post-secondary students. So at Vocational Rehabilitation we provide technical assistance and financial assistance to support post-secondary education programs. And there's a number of programs occurring in the state of Iowa with the Future Ready Iowa program and post-secondary transition apprenticeships, professional work-based learning programs, STEM, science, technology, engineering and math programs that not only provide career opportunities for students with disabilities, but provide economic self-sufficiency, independence programs. So we're all getting better acquainted with providing early exposure to students with disabilities and the opportunities they have to be able to work. And really in Iowa we have a program called Employment First, which basically says with the right services and the right supports everybody can work. So it is our opportunity to be able to provide those services and those supports, to be able to access the training that is needed and not always, a lot of times we think of the training as post-secondary education, but you mentioned the apprenticeships, the hands-on learning programs, the growth that is being experienced in our building trades and electrician programs and carpenter programs and those are opportunities in career fields that provide excellent income and excellent independence for the people that are interested in that.

Henderson: Amy, Alex told us that he went to a small college and they made accommodations. Is it better to go to a small institution than to go to a large university if you are a disabled person?

Bentley: I don't know that there is a distinction either way. I will say that another thing that we have learned in working with business leaders around the world is that there just aren't enough people with disabilities in the pipeline for many positions that they would like to hire for. And so we know at this table that we aren't getting always people with disabilities into post-secondary opportunities whether it's a technical degree or whether it's a four-year degree at the same level as we are the general population. And so there are some initiatives that have started. At the Institute we are part of an alliance to start to work on that as well. But I think what I've experienced and seen and speaking with others, it doesn't necessarily matter the type of institution or the type of business, it's really if you have a strong advocate there for disability issues whether that is a leader. So if you think of Darren Walker from the Ford Foundation, he has done amazing things within Ford and their company to increase their employment of people with disabilities as well as how they handle disability as an issue as well as their giving to other organizations so they can do the same because he was an advocate. Going back to the conversation with Alex about people with disability running for office, we don't see that at a high rate and I wish that we did. But another important thing in going back to the legacy of the ADA is those advocates for people with disabilities, people that are a part of that, that were touched by it. So someone like Senator Harkin whose brother was deaf and that impacted his ability to be an advocate for the disability community, someone like Ted Kennedy, someone like George H.W. Bush. And we saw them as the advocates in passing the ADA because of those touches in their lives and that understanding of disability that they had.

Henderson: We have about 90 seconds left. Alex and David, how would you recommend that our viewers who are interested in this can become the best advocate for this issue? Alex, I'll start with you.

Watters: I would really encourage them to reach out to the disability community, reach out to those organizations that are advocating and ask how they can be an advocate, how they can be a part of that fight. I think it's an exciting time, 100 years of VR and 30 years of the ADA, now is the time to continue to push for some of these changes that I think are easy and within striking distance. We just need to all come together to really fight in that same direction.

Henderson: David, what would be your advice?

Mitchell: I would certainly echo what Alex said. It starts one person at a time. It's that relationship you have with your family member, your neighbor, somebody that you're acquainted with. People with disabilities, in Alex's situation it can happen as we walk out the building today. So it impacts all of us and it's important to start one relationship at a time. You had earlier asked me about my interest in the career and I think my interest is working with people like Amy and Alex and you see the professionalism they bring in every day and the chance that we have to create opportunities people is really exciting and keeps us going each day.

Henderson: Well, our conversation can't keep going. I'm out of time. But thanks to each of you for joining and sharing your views and experiences.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Henderson: Thanks for joining us today. Thanks for watching. For all of us at Iowa PBS, have a good day.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

The program you just watched was, presented as part of Move To Include, a public media initiative made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa