National Press Club

Harkin calls on companies to hire those with disabilities as panel says new technology can help pave the way

September 5, 2019 | By Louise D. Walsh |

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin speaks at a National Press Club Headliners event.

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin speaks at a National Press Club Headliners event.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin urged employers Wednesday to hire more workers with disabilities, saying “the largest minority group in America is still being discriminated against on a daily basis!”

Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chief sponsor of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, told a National Press Club Newsmakers event that almost 11 million adults with disabilities remain outside the workforce, despite new technology to assist them.

According to a recent Accenture report, “Getting to Equal: the Disability Inclusion Advantage,” persons with disabilities are an untapped market and “strikingly underemployed." As of July 2018, only 29 percent of Americans between ages 16 and 64 with disabilities participated in the workforce, compared with 75 percent of Americans without a disability."

The report suggested “the GDP could get a boost up to $25 billion if just 1 percent more of persons with disabilities joined the U.S. labor force.”

Google Vice President Vinton Cerf demonstrated his phone’s “live-transcribe” feature that instantly printed his spoken words. He and his wife will use it in a restaurant to better communicate.

Another panelist, Gregg Vanderheiden, professor and director of the Trace R&D Center at the University of Maryland, said he was concerned that complex technology was "disabling people with the complexity of what we design.”

And Kim Charlson, the first woman president of the American Council of the Blind and now executive director of the Perkins Library at the Perkins School for the Blind, called for “an inclusive mindset because the invisible barriers can be the hardest to overcome.” She said it was important to include accessibility in a product’s early design phase rather than trying to add it later.

One of her concerns is that new rules don't "keep us out,” like requiring a driver’s license for autonomous vehicles, thus preventing blind individuals from using them on their own.