We've come a long way, baby: Sen. Harkin teaches DNC audience "America" in sign language

July 27, 2016 • Posted in blindness, politics, Uncategorized by

Overshadowed by speeches by Bernie, Bill and Michelle at the Democratic Convention this week came a quick and quiet talk by former Senator Tom harkin to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act yesterday.

Harkin, who was taught sign language by his brother Frank, taught everyone in the audience the sign for “America”: put your palms together, he said, continuing by instructing the crowd of delegates to make a huge circle in front of them while their hands were together like that. “Think about it,” he said. “We are all together, no one is left out in this constant circle of life .”

Click on the image to see Sen. Harkin in action.

Click on the image to see Sen. Harkin in action.

The Americans with Disabilities Act hadn’t been passed yet when I started losing my eyesight in 1984. I was 25 years old then, and along with the obvious fear of going blind came the underlying fear of being left out of society if and when that happened. I went as long as I could without using a white cane or a guide dog. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to my job as the Assistant Director of the Study Abroad Office at a Big Ten university.

Most of my work back then involved counseling college students on study abroad options — I could have done that with my eyes closed!

As my eyesight got worse, though, I started making mistakes in the office. I still remember spilling grounds all over the floor on my way to make the morning coffee. I had to sit close to my computer screen to see the words. I ran into tabletops.

At some point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said. Months later, my contract was terminated.

I celebrated the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) yesterday right along with Sen. Harkin. The landmark federal legislation was passed five years after I lost that job. Designed to improve access to services and employment opportunities, it was intended to eliminate illegal discrimination and level the playing field for people like me who live with disabilities.

I am totally blind now, and I use speech software for my part-time job moderating a blog for easterseals. I’ve had two books published, and have another one on the way. I record pieces for public radio from time to time, and I lead four different memoir-writing classes for older adults in Chicago every week.

It’s true we have a long, long way to go before hiring practices are totally fair to those of us who can’t see, use wheelchairs, or have a myriad of other disabilities. Things are moving in the right direction, though, and thanks to the wisdom and determination of Sen. Harkin and the many people who banded together to get the ADA passed 26 years ago, we have the law on our side.

Cheryl On July 27, 2016 at 4:51 pm

Hooray for Harkin! Your boss was an “embarr ass ment” to her job. Those were hard sad times. But look where you are now…..!! You are a strong, intelligent women, talented woman or as Mom would simply say as she gently shook her head, “That Beth”.

bethfinke On July 27, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Awwww, Cheryl, you’re going to make me cry now. The “embar ass ment” notion makes me laugh at the same time, though. Thanks for the sweet comment, especially that fun Flo memory. She made me the strong woman I am today. We were so fortunate to have her as a mother. What a role model!


Bryan McMurray On July 27, 2016 at 4:58 pm

I love this post! You captured what so so many of us feel, without it even sounding political, just, real life issues! I love it, Beth! And, I wonder, imagine, you would not, could not, lose that same job were you to hold it today? Anyway, as always, thanks for sharing!!! Bryan


bethfinke On July 27, 2016 at 5:37 pm

Thanks, Bryan, and you know, you’re right: I would not, could not, lose that same job if I had it today.

With the ADA as law, an employer likely wouldn’t dare to try to fire a worker who developed a disability and was still able to do the work.

And so, in that way, I think the ADA is extremely powerful for average working people who develop a disability in adulthood. Where we need more progress is in encouraging employers to hire people who already have a disability.

Like I say, though -we’ve come a long, long way.


Regan Burke On July 27, 2016 at 7:24 pm

What a remarkable feat it was to get this done – with Republican Bob Dole’s help and with George Bush #1 in the White House. I mourn our country that we had to legislate this, but it’s a swell example of how yes, we must legislate morality.

bethfinke On July 27, 2016 at 8:52 pm

Yes, remember the days when Democrats and Republicans could negotiate to get important legislation passed?


Mel Theobald On July 27, 2016 at 7:52 pm

This is so cool. The only sign language I ever learned was “I love you.” I figured that would be enough to cover all situations. But learning to say “America” is just as good. Thanks to you and Sen. Harkin for never losing sight of that. (No pun intended.)

bethfinke On July 27, 2016 at 8:52 pm

Pun taken. I like it!


DJ Mermaid On July 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

i also watched the DNC and I was amazed by what Anastasia Somoza’s speech conveyed . She is an advocate for disability rights. It’s a good speech to watch or listen to.

bethfinke On July 29, 2016 at 9:07 am

DJM — I somehow missed Anastasia Somoza’s speech but have heard a lot about it and have also read some of what she said. Now with your reminder I’ll look it up on YouTube and give it a listen. I thought of you a lot while listening to Hillary’s speech last night, I know you have plans to be president someday and I am delighted that HRC is paving the way for you and other young women to do just that. Hope you will be back in the blogging seat soon –your readers miss you, and so di I!


bethfinke On July 30, 2016 at 6:35 am

Thanks for these links, Benita. I’m all ears!


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