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Judging Books by the Cover | Beacon College | Darryl E. Owens

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Disabled workers provide businesses opportunity

In May, former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin graced parents, friends and students with his presence at Beacon College’s 28th commencement exercises.

Standing at the podium, Harkin hailed the excitement and significance of the day. Beacon graduated a record number — 63. Harkin praised their long and arduous journey, and the sweet payoff that came with breaking the academic tape at the commencement finish line.

“Beacon has prepared you well,” he said. “You have been privileged to attend the best, the number one college in America for students with learning challenges. You should be very proud of this.”

Then, Harkin pressed rewind.

ADA Becomes a Reality

The longtime legislator traveled back to July 26, 1990. A throng gathered on the White House lawn to see The Americans with Disabilities Act finally come to fruition. A measure dragged into existence through the blood, sweat and tears of Harkin, the bill’s chief sponsor. A landmark, potentially life-changing piece of legislation that with President George H. W. Bush’s signature promised to usher Americans who learn, move, think, see, speak and look differently into a world in which they finally would be treated in American public life the same as anyone else.

To that end, Harkin said the ADA had four goals: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

“I always point out to people that there is not one nickel — not one dime — given to a person with a disability under this law,” he said. “What we did was break down barriers so that people with disabilities could achieve each of those four goals.”

Harkin’s Disability Summit

In that vein, Harkin last year launched the inaugural Harkin International Disability Employment Summit, convened by the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement. Beacon College President George J. Hagerty attended the invitation-only affair meant to hatch strategies to bolster competitive employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Recent Florida Chamber Foundation research revealed more than 700,000 of 1.13 million Sunshine Staters living with disabilities between ages 16 and 65 want to work, yet remain unemployed. By 2030, Florida could face a serious conundrum: the state projects a surplus of two million new jobs, yet a ready, willing and increasingly college-educated workforce may wind up sitting at home as jobs remain open.

“Part of the reason is the ‘attitude’ problem,” Harkin said. “We still have hiring managers who think less of hiring a person with a disability based on the employers’ fears, myths and stereotypes connected to disabilities.”

Harkin knows better. His older brother Frank — struck deaf after a childhood bout with spinal meningitis — proved such a productive, meticulous and mistake-free worker on the line at a noisy manufacturing plant in Des Moines, Iowa, that the owner hired more deaf individuals.

A Message That Cannot Be Missed

“One of the most important messages from the ADA and the disability movement that helped create it, is that disability is a natural part of the human experience, and one’s experience with a disability like dyslexia, ADHD, bipolar disorder or autism should not prevent one from participating fully in all aspects of life,” Harkin said. “However, to forge that reality, we have to change attitudes.”

One way to do that, he suggests, is for people living with disabilities to “out” themselves at work. “Be proud of your status as part of the disabled community and ready to use the insights connected to your disabilities to help employers be more successful,” he said. “The fastest way to change attitudes is for people to have a positive experience working alongside someone with a disability.”

But they cannot work unless more employers are willing to give them a shot. Given the incentives under sections 501 and 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Uncle Sam and federal contractors are motivated to recruit and promote qualified workers with disabilities. Other incentives await private sector and small businesses.

They are waiting and willing to show, like Frank Harkin, that they are capable of shutting out the societal noise of low expectations and stereotypes and do the job.


Darryl E. Owens has been the director of communications for Beacon College, the first college or university accredited to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students who learn differently, since January 2016. Prior to that, he served for 25 years as a columnist and editorial writer for The Orlando Sentinel.