Senator Tom Harkin was born in Cumming, Iowa. After graduating from Dowling High School in Des Moines, he attended Iowa State University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in government and economics. Following graduation, Tom served in the Navy as a jet pilot on active duty from 1962 to 1967.
Tom went to Washington in 1969 to join Iowa Congressman Neal Smith. As a staff member accompanying a Congressional delegation to South Vietnam, he independently investigated and photographed the infamous “tiger cage” cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island, where prisoners – many of them students – were being tortured and kept in inhumane conditions. Despite pressure to suppress his findings, Tom made public his photos and eyewitness accounts, which were subsequently published in Life magazine. As a result, hundreds of abused prisoners were released.
In 1974, Tom was elected to Congress from Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District. After serving 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Tom was elected Senator in 1984 and is currently in his historic fifth term in the U.S. Senate.
As a young senator, Tom was tapped by Sen.Ted Kennedy to craft legislation to protect the civil rights of millions of Americans with physical and mental disabilities. Tom knew firsthand about the challenges facing people with disabilities from his late brother, Frank, who was deaf from an early age. What emerged from that process would later become Tom’s signature legislative achievement — The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
ADA legislation changed the landscape of America by requiring wheelchair accessibility, and providing workplace accommodations for people with disabilities. To preserve the intent of the ADA after several court rulings weakened its standards, Sen. Harkin and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the ADA Amendments bill to ensure continuing protections from discrimination for all Americans with disabilities. It was signed into law in September 2008.
In addition to ADA, Sen. Harkin introduced the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1989. Thanks to Sen. Harkin’s support, this landmark legislation was signed into law in 1990, granting children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education. Since its passing, Sen. Harkin has continued to support IDEA by advocating for full funding of this important legislation.
Tom has also worked to advance research that translates into actual therapy and cures for diseases, genetic conditions, and injury-related illness. Such work includes his support of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. In 2006, when the Foundation presented the disparity of funding for people with Down syndrome to the Senator, he was concerned about the disparity and expeditiously included report language in the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill that questioned why there was such a severe decrease in funding for research for people with Down syndrome from the National Institutes of Health. The report language also encouraged more attention and funding for research that would benefit people with Down syndrome. To read the report language please click here.
Senator Tom Harkin has lead legislative efforts to provide unprecedented human and civil rights to the differently-abled in the United States. He has worked tirelessly to ensure that all Americans, including those who are differently-abled, have the opportunity to pursue a quality education and affordable healthcare.
The Global Down Syndrome Foundation is proud to announce Sen. Tom Harkin as the 2011 Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award recipient.