WASHINGTON, DC–Senator Tom Harkin (D, IA), perhaps the U.S. Senate’s leading champion of people with hearing loss, announced on January 26 that he will not seek re-election when his fifth term expires at the end of 2014. Harkin, who is 73 and has been in the Senate since 1985, cited his age in explaining his decision.
Harkin became deeply involved with hearing loss issues because of his brother, Frank. In the keynote address to the American Academy of Audiology’s 2005 Convention, the senator recalled the pain he felt as he witnessed first hand the struggles that Frank faced after losing his hearing in early childhood. Harkin said that seeing his brother sent to a school for “the deaf and dumb” and being “treated as if he weren’t even there” by people who couldn’t communicate with him “had a profound effect on me.”
Throughout the nearly 40 years that he has represented Iowa as a congressman and a senator, Harkin has been inspired by his brother to improve the lives of people who have been held back by hearing loss or other disabilities.
KEY PLAYER IN ENACTING THE ADA
Tom Harkin and then-Senator Bob Dole (R, KS) were co-authors of the historic 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), whose passage protected the civil rights of more than 50 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities. When Harkin introduced the bill into the Senate he delivered part of his speech in sign language so his brother could understand it.
The ADA, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, requires reasonable accommodations for persons with hearing loss. This has led to improved access to schools, churches, movie houses, and other public facilities and has increased their opportunities in the workplace.
Harkin authored several other laws that have improved conditions for people with hearing loss and other disabilities. He was a leading force behind the creation of the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders. Part of the National Institutes of Health, NIDCD has as its mission to conduct and support research and research training in hearing and related areas.
Harkin also wrote the legislation that requires television sets to have closed captioning.
In addition, he helped draft legislation that reformed education for children with disabilities, with an emphasis on early intervention.
Harkin has been a staunch advocate of the Hearing Aid Tax Credit act, which would give hearing aid purchasers a $500 tax credit per aid. In May 2011, when the bipartisan measure was most recently introduced in the Senate, he was a lead sponsor.
At the time, he said, “Growing up with a brother who was deaf, I saw the challenges that individuals with hearing loss face every day. For many, the solution is as simple as getting a hearing aid, but sadly, many Americans are not able to afford this life-changing device.”
He added, “We must do more to help people who cannot afford hearing aids to live happier, more productive lives. This bill makes long-term economic sense and improves the lives of our friends, family members, and neighbors with hearing loss.”
Harkin, who is Senate co-chair of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus, has also co-sponsored the Hearing Health Accessibility Act, a measure permitting Medicare beneficiaries access bill to audiologists without need for a medical referral.