Given the media black hole that Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry has become, it might be possible to forget there is a presidential election coming up in less than a year. But the early race for the Democratic nomination has been fascinating so far. At one point there were upwards of 20 candidates, and, as of the moment this is being written, the field has been winnowed down to 17, all before the first primary ballots have been cast.
Seeking to make a sharp contrast with the rhetoric of the past four years, Democratic candidates are promoting a vision of a more inclusive, welcoming America. And in a way that we haven’t seen in the past, disability policy is making its way onto the campaign trail as part of this broader focus on minority rights. So let’s take a look at where our community sits in the 2020 presidential race.
What They’re Talking About
We can count on politicians to speak in platitudes, and plenty have already done that for the disability community. In July, on the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 13 democratic presidential candidates made statements, either in person or via social media, saluting the landmark legislation. Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey, sent a tweet typical of the tone of the day: “The ADA was signed 29 years ago today. We have more to do to ensure equality for Americans with disabilities who still face high poverty rates and barriers to health care and quality of life. As president, I’ll fight for equal rights and inclusion for people with disabilities.”
Even Trump — who has been roundly condemned by the disability community for mocking a disabled reporter, encouraging the Social Security Administration to monitor the social media accounts of disability benefits recipients and gutting programs many disabled Americans rely on — issued a proclamation of support for the ADA.
The public acknowledgement of the ADA’s importance is welcome, but we all know the law is not a panacea. In elections past, specific policy proposals relevant to the disability community have been few and far between. In the 2020 race, that is finally starting to change. Whether through their campaign speeches and websites, or in answers to surveys from the American Association of People with Disabilities, 2020 presidential candidates have put out disability policy platforms and taken positions on many of the issues that advocates have been fighting for years to bring into the national conversation. Here’s where some of the candidates are on disability issues:
• Joe Biden has been around long enough that he cosponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act. His current disability plans are similar to his broader campaign themes: protecting and strengthening the systems we already have, namely the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
• Elizabeth Warren was an original cosponsor of the Disability Integration Act. Her campaign has detailed a wide-ranging disability platform that touches on education, employment, inclusion of long-term supports and services in universal health care coverage, making America’s polling places more accessible, and even increasing funding for biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health, among others.
• Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the DIA as well. His and Warren’s disability platforms echo each other’s in many ways. Sanders is also calling for a federal jobs initiative that would guarantee employment to people with disabilities who want and are able to work.
• Pete Buttigieg released a similarly comprehensive disability platform that reads like it came directly from a disability advocate’s wish list. In addition to staples like healthcare and IDEA, Buttigieg’s plan has some interesting additions, including creating a national apprenticeship program to boost disabled employment and ending the SSDI benefits cliff by allowing recipients to earn partial benefits while earning wages up to nearly $45,000 a year.
• Second-tier candidates — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Andrew Yang, among others — are weighing in with similar proposals to end the sub-minimum wage loophole for disabled workers, increase access to complex rehab technology, ensure climate change mitigation and disaster relief strategies are inclusive of disabled Americans, and prioritize disabled applicants for accessible housing units.
As with any issue, your views on specific platforms will be dependent on your politics and your trust of individual candidates. But in the 2020 Democratic primaries, unlike any presidential election before, it will be possible to make a decision for whom you’re going to vote based entirely on comparing disability platforms.
For those wishing to take a deep dive into the different candidates and their positions, the AAPD’s Presidential Candidates: 2020 page (aapd.com/advocacy/voting/presidential-elections-2020) is a great place to start.
What They’re Doing
Framing disability through the rosy lens of candidate websites and stump speeches, it can be easy to get hopeful — until you remember what happens when policy ambitions meet the unforgiving world of Washington, D.C., politics. The odds of success for turning campaign rhetoric into legislative action are as low as they are for a sea turtle journeying successfully from nest to sea — it’s a nasty business, full of vultures that want to eat your baby for lunch.
Politicians need sustained engagement with the disability community to keep relevant issues at the forefront of their agendas. Two good ways to do that are by making their events accessible and by hiring staff with a variety of disabilities. Warren’s campaign has stated that they won’t sign any leases on buildings for their offices or venues for public events if the locations are inaccessible. Other candidates are making similar pushes for accessibility at their offices and events. Such efforts are a welcome no-brainer when it comes to reducing the casual exclusion of disabled people from the political process.
Similarly, bringing disabled people onto staff can change the way that candidates think about disability. Campaigns, including those of Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg and others, are pledging to hire disabled campaign staff. Emily Voorde, a wheelchair user, is serving as the travel manager for the Buttigieg campaign, allowing Mayor Pete a unique perspective on the airline industry. “It means that when Emily’s wheelchair gets broken by the airlines, all of a sudden we have a political campaign see firsthand the kind of rampant discrimination and mistreatment that disabled people face by the airline industry … they actually have to live the consequences of that now, which is pretty freaking amazing,” says Rebecca Cokley, the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buttigieg’s platform now includes a piece on airline accessibility.
Campaigns are also reaching out to disability leaders, both in national organizations and in the early primary states. “We are getting a lot of phone calls from the campaigns,” says Jenn Wolff, a longtime disability advocate and chapter leader for the Iowa Chapter of United Spinal. “I actually got a phone call the night before Kamala Harris released her disability platform, asking my opinion on it.”
No election cycle is perfect, but advocates are saying they have never seen these levels of engagement between the presidential campaigns and the disability community, nor the willingness to learn and try to be better when it comes to inclusion and access.
Presidential candidates didn’t just appear out of nowhere with a conviction that people with disabilities are worth appealing to on the campaign trail. The current moment — where candidates are thinking about inclusion and how to rectify programs and policies that have long discriminated against disabled Americans — has come on the back of decades of work by disability advocates. It is about us and our community making society understand that disability isn’t just a medical issue but a civil rights issue. It’s about Judy Heumann and the 100-plus protestors at the 504 sit-in, ADAPT activists storming congressional offices to save the ACA and everyone before, after and in between. It’s about disabled Americans living well, contributing to our communities and to society as a whole despite a system that’s stacked against us. We could congratulate presidential candidates for finally realizing that people with disabilities are a large and important voting bloc. But damn, it’s about time. If anyone deserves congratulating from the disability community, it’s ourselves.
Good job, everybody. Alongside other marginalized groups with whom our community so often intersects, we’ve pushed politicians to start acknowledging that progress doesn’t count unless it includes everyone. The reward? We get to keep forging ahead. The vultures are waiting.
AAPD’s ‘Elected For Inclusion’ Presidential Forum
On January 13, at the AT&T Convention Center in Austin, Texas, the American Association of People with Disabilities is hosting a forum for presidential candidates to talk disability policy and engage with the community. “We’ve seen a lot of the momentum in terms of the disability vote over the past few years,” says Keri Gray, AAPD’s senior director of stakeholder engagement and strategic communications. “The forum is really about building on that momentum and showing that the disability vote does exist. … The goal is to make sure that whoever sits in the office understands who our community is and what are priorities are.”
If you’re in the area, tickets are only $10 and can be purchased through the Elected for Inclusion website (aapd.com/advocacy/voting/2020-presidential-forum-on-disability-issues/). The event will also be webcast.