Q: Looking back three decades, how has the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impacted society?
A: This historic civil rights law has empowered tens of millions of Americans with disabilities to live a higher quality of life and eliminate barriers to employment, education and economic opportunities in communities across our great nation. During debate on the Senate floor thirty years ago, I introduced an amendment to make the ADA apply to the legislative branch of the federal government. In 1995, my landmark Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) applied for the first time a dozen workplace safety, anti-discrimination and civil rights protections, including the ADA, to the People’s branch. In 2018, I worked to further strengthen its protections for congressional employees. Just as the ADA was a seminal moment for civil rights in America, the CAA requires lawmakers on Capitol Hill to recognize how compliance with the laws we write impacts the people we are elected to represent.
Like many Iowans, I admire the crusade my former colleague Senator Tom Harkin has championed for individuals with disabilities throughout his public service and personal life. Thanks to the tireless, bipartisan leadership by Senator Harkin and other leaders, especially then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, a World War II veteran disabled in the line of duty, and a strong coalition of policy advocates, America has raised the bar of expectations, inclusion and access for individuals who live with disabilities. After three decades on the books, the ADA provides individuals with disabilities equality under the law and helps remove barriers that would otherwise limit their opportunities to pursue their dreams, participate fully in society and achieve their fullest potential. I’ll always remember Senator Harkin’s speech on the day the ADA passed the Senate. For the first time in Senate history, he delivered remarks in American Sign Language, paying tribute to his older brother Frank who was deaf. For 30 years, the ADA has helped bridge the divide between Americans with and without disabilities. It’s driven consumer product development and improved public services to help meet the needs of this community. And it’s shaped the way younger generations view their rights and responsibilities of civic life, as employers, co-workers and advocates. Arguably the greatest legacy of the ADA is how the federal law continues to pay it forward by empowering Americans with physical or mental disabilities to dream big and live life to its fullest. Thanks to the ADA, every American who is born with a disability or develops one later in life is neither confined nor defined by their disability. Instead, the ADA paves the way for Americans of every ability to aspire, achieve, participate and contribute to society.
Q: What policies have you led to enhance opportunities for individuals with disabilities?
A: As former chairman of the Senate Aging Committee and current chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I have spent decades advocating on behalf of older Americans and families of children with special needs and complex medical conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four U.S. adults lives with a disability that impacts major life activities, such as those affecting mobility, vision, hearing, mental health and cognitive skills. What’s more, individuals living with a disability are at greater risk for developing secondary health conditions. The Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction of the Medicare and Medicaid programs that finance the lion’s share of federal spending for rehabilitation, long-term care and home- and community-based services that people living with disabilities depend on to lead healthier, independent lives. Working with providers, family caregivers and patient advocates, my efforts to improve the quality of life and opportunities for Iowans with disabilities is driven by the principles enshrined in the nation’s founding charter. We are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights and “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” At the policymaking tables, I work to improve the quality of life for all Americans, including those living with disabilities, paying particular attention to challenges and resources for those in rural communities. My efforts include strengthening enforcement of quality care standards in the nation’s nursing homes; supporting telehealth services that make it easier for veterans and individuals with disabilities to access medical care, especially in rural areas where specialty clinics may be hours away; expanding resources and respite care for family caregivers; and, improving continuum of care for children with medically complex conditions. President Trump signed my bipartisan ACE Kids Act into law last year. It’s designed to give parents and their child’s team of health care providers the tools to coordinate care and achieve better patient outcomes and give peace of mind to families. I’ve also called upon the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get the lead out and issue the rules for my bipartisan law that allows for the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids. The deadline for the FDA to issue those rules is fast approaching in August. What’s more, I’ll keep my foot on the gas in the United States Senate to lower unjustified price increases from year to year on prescription drug prices that create financial hardship for too many Americans, including those managing chronic health conditions due to a disability. As our nation observes the 30th anniversary of the ADA, I’ll continue to advance policies that empower all Americans to pursue life, liberty and happiness from one generation to the next.
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990.