CEDAR RAPIDS — Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin called on Democratic presidential candidates Saturday to pay attention to a large group of “ignored” voters — those with disabilities — and put forth their visions for improving accessibility when it comes to housing, transportation and other core functions of society.
Those with disabilities represent one of the largest minority groups, Harkin said. One in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They are a big group of voters that do vote,” Harkin said. “And they connect with other people who vote. And, so I think they have been ignored by politicians for too long at their own political risk. … People with disabilities are not born Democrats or Republicans. No, they listen to try to figure out who’s really speaking to them, not who sympathizes with them but who has empathy.”
Despite being covered by the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, those with disabilities are discriminated against when it comes to housing, transportation, medical care and employment, he said.
Harkin delivered the keynote address Saturday at the 2019 Accessibility, Inclusion and Outreach Conference at the Ramada Inn in Cedar Rapids. The event included a presidential candidate forum with one-on-one conversations with several candidates.
New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Maryland U.S. Rep. John Delaney, former Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd as a surrogate for former Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York businessman Andrew Yang were expected at the event.
Harkin urged those in attendance to push the candidates to answer a key question.
“I say to all of you that when you see all these presidential candidates coming, to ask about making housing — all these federal programs, all these tax dollars that go out to federal housing programs, why not make it contingent on them being accessible to everyone?” Harkin said. “How would you as president accelerate meeting the goals of full inclusion envisioned by the ADA, and please be specific.”
He noted Buttigieg, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have released plans, but many others have not.
The Iowa Democrat from Cumming represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate from 1985 to 2014 and was the principal author of the ADA, which prohibited discrimination based on disabilities with four pillars — full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.
Yet the law has seen spotty compliance across the country.
Harkin urged universal design standards and tying accessibility requirements to federal housing dollars, such as through Section 8 rental assistance, Housing and Urban Development apartment and duplexes, Section 42 tax credit under the IRS code, low income housing tax credit and mortgage tax deduction.
“We know if you build a house that’s accessible with universal design, it doesn’t cost any more,” he said. “It’s only if you have to fix it up later on. But if you start changing some of these laws, boy, you’d be amazed how the architects and designers start designing things that are accessible.”
The city of Cedar Rapids was one of the first communities in Iowa targeted by the Department of Justice for non-compliance and in 2015 reached a four-year settlement agreement. City officials recognized the effort would take nearly twice as long as expected and sought an extension, but instead the Justice Department closed the case, saying it had confidence in the city’s ability to finish the job.
Harkin was critical, saying federal authorities should not have closed the case.
“They should be monitoring to make sure that they meet the compliance,” Harkin said. “The U.S. Department of Justice should at least have one person out of Kansas City or someplace focused on, well are they complying or not?”
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