How Tom Harkin gave the first Senate speech in American Sign Language

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 (C-SPAN/YouTube)
(C-SPAN/YouTube)

During his speech commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, President Joe Biden named many legislators involved in passing the law. In particular, Mr Biden named former Senator Tom Harkin, who upon the law’s passage gave the first address on the Senate floor in American Sign Language.

A Democratic Senator from Iowa from 1985 to 2015, Mr Harkin’s actions were a testament to how intensely personal disability policy was to both him and to millions of disabled Americans and their loved ones.

Mr Harkin had an older brother named Frank, who was deaf from a young age. Frank Harkin was sent to what was then called the Iowa School for the Deaf and Dumb.

“Frank always told me, ‘I may be deaf, but I’m not dumb,’” Mr Harkin has said in the past. But societal expectations of deaf people severely limited their career opportunities and meant he could be only a cobbler, a printer or a baker.

“I knew he had unlimited potential, but he faced huge barriers,” the senator said. “It wasn’t Frank’s disability that held him back, but the physical and attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face.”

In turn, when Mr Harkin was elected, first as a congressman and then as a senator, he made the rights of people with disabilities his life’s work. On July 13th, upon the ADA’s passage, Mr Harkin delivered a speech in ASL addressed to Frank Harkin.

“Today Congress opens the doors to all Americans with disabilities, that today we say ‘no’ to fear, that we say ‘no’ to ignorance, and that we say ‘no’ to prejudice,” he said. Mr Harkin compared the law to the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves during the Civil War.

During his farewell speech, Mr Harkin said then-Senator John Kerry didn’t know what to do when Mr Harkin began to deliver the speech.

“The recording clerk didn’t know what to do either,” he said. “But then I had to give it verbally.”

But Mr Harkin was not the only person involved in the law who was touched by disability. Republican Senator Bob Dole had lost much of the use of his right arm after serving in World War II. Senator Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, had a son who lost a leg, while Senator Orrin Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah, had a brother-in-law with polio and relied on an iron lung and Mr Hatch had to carry him from room-to-room during a service at a temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Mr Harkin would retire in 2015 and during his farewell address, taught the US Senate floor one final lesson in ASL, teaching everyone how to say the word “America”, which requires fingers to be interlocked into the shape of an “A” and moving one’s arms in a circular motion in front of one’s chest.

“This is the ideal America toward which we must always aspire,” he said.

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