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Sen. Harkin: Recruit the disabled for non-combat jobs

Jul. 23, 2014 - 01:19PM   |  
John McCain, Tom Harkin
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, at the Capitol in Washington, on Feb. 25. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)
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While veterans’ groups are pushing the Senate to expand protections for disabled troops when they travel abroad, lawmakers in the chamber are considering expanding military jobs to disabled individuals at home.

On Wednesday, veterans’ groups and a bipartisan coalition of senators led by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole lobbied again for adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, arguing the move could provide international support for troops left disabled from war injuries.

The treaty, modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, requires countries to provide disabled individuals equality under the law. Already, 141 countries have ratified the measure, but concerns over whether the treaty would mandate new regulations on U.S. businesses have stalled its adoption in the Senate.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said they’re continuing to work to dispel those myths, and to again establish America as a worldwide leader in providing protection and opportunities for the disabled.

But Harkin wants to push that idea even further, including an amendment in a Senate draft of the annual defense appropriations bill last week that would require the military to study the possibility of allowing disabled individuals to enlist in the military in non-combat and support roles.

“The military now permits individuals to remain on active duty if they acquire a disability while serving their country,” Harkin said during an appropriations hearing July 17. “However, for a person with a similar disability who wants to enlist in the military and be a part of our defense establishment, they would not allow that, even if they needed the same reasonable accommodations.”

The Defense Department already follows federal law mandating “reasonable accommodations” for disabled civilian employees, but no such exceptions are made for enlistees.

“They're not going to be combat people, but we have a lot of people with disabilities who are lawyers who would like to enter the JAG Corps and be a part of our military,” Harkin said. “For every one combat person, there are 10 behind them.”

Lawmakers mandated a similar study from the Air Force last year, but were disappointed in the results. Harkin said service officials studied how well able-bodied airmen wearing silencing headphones performed various tasks, rather than looking into whether deaf individuals could succeed in those same goals.

The latest measure was unopposed in the appropriations committee, but like the disability treaty faces an uncertain future.

While concerns about regulatory overreach have stalled progress on the treaty ratification, congressional gridlock has stalled progress on the defense appropriations measure. If it passes, that likely will not happen until after the November elections, and only if House members are persuaded to leave the study in the bill.

But supporters of both measures are hopeful they can gather enough support for each initiative before the end of the year.

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