By Senator Tom Harkin

At a recent field hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in Cedar Rapids, a new generation of Iowans living with disabilities described their high expectations to succeed in the competitive labor market.  This group of young people, whom I refer to as the "ADA Generation," are inspiring and motivated.  The strategies they shared should serve as a national model of what can be done to increase the employment participation rate for all individuals with disabilities.

Emilea Hillman of Independence is only 24 years old, but she is already an entrepreneur and owner of Em's Coffee Co., a café where she employs six people.  After spending months developing a business plan and navigating the challenges that face any new small business owner, she opened the shop in 2009.  Em, who has an intellectual disability, uses various techniques to help her in remembering orders and now has a loyal customer base.

Ron Frank, the manager of the Walgreens in Cedar Rapids, described how his company has pioneered efforts for enhancing employment for youth and adults with disabilities.  This local store has partnered with Goodwill of the Heartland to provide a job skills training program, allowing job seekers with disabilities to gain both classroom knowledge of the retail environment and skills necessary for hands-on experience in a retail setting.

As these Iowans demonstrated, young people with disabilities know that they can succeed in the workplace, and the private and public sectors are ready to give them the chance.  But despite those facts, people with disabilities have not begun to see the benefits of our nation's economic recovery.  Last year, nearly 3 million Americans without disabilities joined the labor force, but over same period, 94,000 workers with disabilities left the labor force.  In Iowa, even with our relatively low unemployment rate in comparison to the rest of the country, individuals with disabilities face barriers to finding jobs.  As Alex Watters of Milford, a young man with a spinal cord injury, said at the hearing, "A talent pool is sitting stagnant due to the overwhelming obstacles in their way."

As the country celebrates the 22nd anniversary of the ADA this July 26th, I released a report that urges Congress, the Administration, the business community, and society at large to make the issue of disability employment a national priority.  In this report, I call attention to the bad shape that disability employment is in right now, but I also focus on several new factors, which have the potential to reshape employment for people with disabilities.  I am delighted that the new chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), Jack Markell of Delaware, recently announced that he will make boosting disability employment his top priority during his tenure of the leader of NGA.

Although the numbers highlighted in my report are sobering, I think that we are at a turning point for bringing more people with disabilities into the workforce.

For more information about the ADA, please contact any of my offices in Iowa or Washington, D.C., or visit my website at

A PDF version of the article is available by clicking here

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