IOWA CITY — Iowa’s recently retired U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who in 1988 introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act into the Senate, told a crowd on the University of Iowa campus Tuesday the labor law is “alive and well” but could go further in protecting rights and preventing discrimination.
“We’ve come a long way,” Harkin said. “But as new technologies develop, new concepts, we have to be vigilant to make sure that when we build — especially those who build IT platforms — we bring in people with disabilities. Bring them in. Ask them, ‘What would you like to see?’”
Harkin did some of that listening Tuesday during his lecture on the Disabilities Act and its aim toward inclusion. That was part of the UI’s theme semester this fall titled, “Our Lives Online.”
Over the course of the term, the university will dig deeper into the “global system of connectedness, networks and collaboration discovered in our past and emerging in our present future,” according to an online summary.
During Harkin’s appearance at UI, he fielded comments from audience members interested in hearing-assistance technology, new disability-specific employment training for college counselors and continuing efforts to move disabled individuals out of care facilities and into the community.
He laid out the ADA’s four primary goals — full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency — and highlighted past and ongoing efforts to accomplish them. Some of those ongoing and future efforts involve technology — even though “we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have all that in 1988.”
“But we put a provision in that said the ADA basically is to be adaptable for new technologies,” Harkin said. “What we were writing was not just for that technology but to incorporate this into new technologies as they develop.”
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Harkin said he and his Harkin Institute are advocating through the Department of Justice for making the internet and intranet fully accessible from the design aspect.
“They have to be,” he said, noting that, for example, more job applications and interviews are being done online.
In addition, more companies are conducting their internal training online.
“As technology has become the central element of everyday living, the ADA is now increasingly playing a critical role” in ensuring equal opportunity and accessibility, Harkin said.
He cited testimony out of the Justice Department that “as more and more of our social infrastructure is made available on the internet, in some cases exclusively online, access to information and electronic technologies is increasingly becoming the gateway civil-rights issue for individuals with disabilities.
“The federal government must make sure that the legal protections for the rights of individuals with disabilities are fair and sufficiently strong to ensure that innovation increases opportunities for everyone.
“We must avoid the travesty that would occur if the doors that were opened to Americans from advancing technologies were closed to individuals with disabilities because we were not vigilant,” Harkin said.