Increasing Employment for People with Disabilities

Family-Friendly Workplaces Include Accommodations and Representation


Senator Tom Harkin (retired) wrote about the importance of promoting employment and economic self-sufficiency in the most recent issue of NETWORK Connection, an organization of advocates for justice inspired by Catholic sisters. It has been reprinted here by permission of NETWORK. Find a PDF of the entire issue here and learn more about NETWORK at


It has been nearly 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — landmark civil rights legislation that eliminated barriers and opened our society more fully to people with disabilities.

The ADA had four primary goals: equal opportunity, full participation in American society, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. We have made significant progress on these goals, but when it comes to economic self-sufficiency, we still have a good deal of work to do.

The unemployment rate among Americans with disabilities is the same as it was in 1991, when the ADA went into effect. Any conversation about accommodating, family-friendly workplaces would be incomplete without including employees with disabilities.

People with disabilities want to work, they want to contribute to society, and they are proud of the work they can do. Yet, only about 40% of working-age Americans with disabilities are employed.

I knew I wanted to focus much of my time and attention on disability when I retired from the Senate. So, with my wife Ruth, we established The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. At The Harkin Institute, we provide robust, nonpartisan programming and research for policymakers and the public in four key issue areas: labor and employment, retirement security, wellness and nutrition, and people with disabilities.

We established The Harkin International Disability Employment Summit in 2016, and in four years, we’ve gathered 603 people from more than 50 countries — private sector businesses, disabled persons organizations, nonprofits, government agencies — to discuss best practices and ways to increase employment among people with disabilities.

At the 2017 Harkin Summit, I issued a bold challenge to double the rate of employment of people with disabilities globally in 10 years. It is an aggressive goal, but aggressive goals are necessary to produce meaningful change. The Harkin Summit is about finding solutions, and after four years of gathering passionate advocates and business leaders, we have identified some common themes.

Despite what many employers might think, there are many steps businesses and workplaces can take to promote accessibility that cost absolutely nothing. Much can be accomplished by creating a workplace culture that promotes thoughtful, effective communication. Nobody knows it all. Sometimes the only way we can learn is by asking questions. By the same token, people with disabilities need to feel confident in their ability to self-identify in the workplace so they can access the accommodations they need without fear of being treated differently than before they self-identified.

Part of creating an inclusive culture is representation of people with disabilities and dispelling the notion that people with disabilities are limited to entry level positions. Every position should be open to anyone who qualifies for it, regardless of disability.

Creating opportunities where people with disabilities can thrive does not have to be costly, time-consuming, or intimidating. With events like The Harkin Summit and resources provided by The Harkin Institute and other disability employment organizations, there’s never been more guidance to help in these efforts.

Address: 2429 University Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50311 Phone: 515-271-3623 Fax Number: 515-271-3631 Email: Office Hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.