Today, just a few days ahead of Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucuses, Bernie Sanders has announced a new disability rights plan that his campaign describes as a “comprehensive proposal to guarantee every American the rights, jobs, education, services and supports they need to thrive in their communities.”
With a historically competitive Iowa primary race, three of the four leading contenders — Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren — now have comprehensive disability policy proposals that were drafted with significant input from the disability community. Joe Biden, virtually tied with Sanders atop the Iowa polling, also has a disability plan, though it’s far more limited than those of his top three competitors.
“Nearly 30 years after the ADA, it is unacceptable that people with disabilities do not enjoy full equality and inclusion everywhere in America, and we will not wait to advance disability rights,” Sanders said in a release announcing the plan. “This is an issue of fundamental civil rights. Every person with a disability deserves the right to live in their community and have the support they need to thrive. This right must be available to all, free of waiting lists and means tests. It is our moral responsibility to make it happen.”
What’s in the plan?
OK, that’s hyperbole, but only a little. The Sanders website says, “Disability rights will factor into virtually every area of policy-making in a Bernie Sanders administration.” In terms of the proposal his campaign released today, this statement holds true. Highlights include:
• Appointing a person with a disability to serve as a senior adviser on disability policy. This would be a role within the Domestic Policy Council, which advises the president on a wide range of issues. Sanders also proposes creating a National Office of Disability Coordination, run by a person with a disability, to ensure ADA compliance and civil rights for people with disabilities across federal decision making.
• Applying the Supreme Court’s landmark 1999 Olmstead decision in areas outside of community-based care. The plan makes the case for using Olmstead — which found unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — to better integrate employment services, reduce incarceration rates for people with mental illness and prioritize “accountability in law enforcement interactions with people with disabilities.” This would be a common sense and welcome shift to current policy.
• Improving wages, training and protections for homecare workers. These reforms are necessary to meet the increasing demand for PCAs across the country
• Expanding and reforming Social Security. This includes an across-the-board expansion of both SSDI and SSI benefits, an end to the SSDI benefits cliff by reducing SSDI payments by $1 for every $2 earned above the “substantial gainful activity” threshold, increasing the SGA threshold to 250% of the federal poverty level, and an end to both the SSI marriage penalty and SSI asset threshold.
• Tackling the affordable and accessible housing crisis through a variety of means, including better enforcement of existing accessibility laws; investing to repair, modernize and make existing public housing stock accessible; and investing in new affordable, accessible housing units.
• Enacting a federal employment guarantee to “provide living-wage jobs integrated in the community to all people with disabilities who want to work through the program.”
I could go on. But the point is that the Sanders team has brought a first-class disability plan to the table.
Sanders’ plan stands out in both its expansiveness and its specificity. Alongside boiler-plate issues like reforming Social Security and ensuring access to community-based services are issues that never get talked about on a national stage, like addressing discrimination against people with disabilities who wish to adopt children or ensuring our needs are met in disaster relief and climate change resiliency strategies.
Another striking aspect of Sanders’ proposal is his plan of action. While some of his ideas require new legislation, and therefore risk being dismissed as nothing more than big-ticket wish list items, Sanders also identified dozens of changes that can happen through executive orders. This might be an unsustainable and overused method of governance, but should we wind up with a Republican-controlled House or Senate, it’s about the only way a progressive president could get anything done.
With almost 30 years of congressional experience, Sanders clearly understands how Washington works and has a plan to create change within a broken system.
How it stacks up against similar proposals
Sanders’ plan is the latest, but certainly not the only, disability policy plan from a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Pete Buttigieg released a disability plan that set a new standard, and then Elizabeth Warren released a disability plan that one-upped the mayor.
Warren’s plan was built in collaboration with a work group of disability rights advocates and was lauded by many within the community as possibly the most comprehensive they’d ever seen. Warren was active on social media around the time of the plan’s release, engaging with #disabilitytwitter and amplifying the #CriptheVote hashtag started by Alice Wong, Andrew Pulrang and Greg Baratan.
Sanders’ new plan is just as comprehensive, if not more so. And, like Warren’s, was informed by many disability advocates, including Rebecca Cokley of the Center for American Progress, Stacey Milbern of Forward Together, Ari Ne’eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Council, Nicole Jorwic of the ARC, Disability Justice Project Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, and others.
Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders clearly understand that in order to build trust within the communities whose votes they court, they need leaders from within those communities to inform their platforms. As Cokley told the New York Times of her experience on Warren’s working group, “Candidates are actually listening to disabled people. This is how policy should be made.”
Sanders released his plan only a few days in advance of the Iowa caucuses. Maybe his campaign hopes voters who care about disability issues will help put him over the top in the home state of Tom Harkin, an author and original sponsor of the ADA. But Sanders is running in a crowded primary field.
I wrote in December that you could vote for a presidential primary candidate based entirely on their disability platforms. It might not be so simple to choose the best candidate based on their disability policy proposals, though. When it comes to three-fourths of the top-tier contenders, they’re all good and getting better.