Updated: Nov 12, 2020
This is the first in a six-part series on disability issues that could shape disabled people’s votes in the U.S. General Elections this coming November.
On Thursday, May 28, the Joe Biden Presidential campaign announced its disability policy platform, titled “The Biden Plan for Full Participation and Equality for People with Disabilities.” It’s a fairly comprehensive and detailed plan that comes months after an unprecedented number of Presidential primary candidates put out broad, detailed, ambitious disability plans of their own. Biden’s plan mirrors quite a lot from those earlier disability plans. His proposals aren’t as bold, and the wording in Biden’s plans is at some points noticeably vague and careful. But disability plans from Julian Castro, Kamala Harrism, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and others earlier this year clearly set a high bar for Biden, who might otherwise have contented himself with a traditionally supportive-sounding appeal to disabled voters with few commitments and fewer ideas of any consequence. Biden’s plan gives disabled people more to consider partly because of work done and ground broken by his past Primary rivals.
Instead of praising or critiquing the Biden plan and comparing it with whatever disabled voters can figure out about President Trump’s approaches on disability issues, it might be a better idea at this point to review some fundamentals about what “disability issues” actually are. After all, most non-disabled people, and a great many disabled people too, aren’t familiar with the scope and details of disability policy. This isn’t unusual or very surprising. We all use health care, but most of us aren’t well-versed in health care policy. We all eat, but how many of us could understand one of those massive agriculture bills that Congress passes every few years?
Still, if we take a step back and think about it, most of us know what we as disabled people want from politicians. And we can identify some of the most common problems we face as disabled people. Here are a few of the most urgent disability issues that candidates should address:
1. Work and benefits
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Millions of disabled people want to work and have the capability, given sufficient training, accommodations, and equal opportunity. But many of us at various times can’t fully support ourselves financially and need benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to survive and live decent lives. Balancing these benefits with work is very difficult. That’s partly because disability-related benefits are largely designed around traditional ideas about disabled people being by definition unable to work. Working and earning money is therefore taken as a sign of not needing benefits anymore. While these programs to some extent support a gradual transition from benefits to self-sufficiency, there are still restrictive time and dollar limits that constantly threaten sudden financial ruin because of “overpayments” and benefit cutoffs for disabled people who try to work. Disabled people who need both benefits and work have to worry all the time about earning “too much” and losing their benefits.
These limitations and “benefits cliffs,” as well as other old and discredited practices, like legal payment of sub-minimum wage, are all based on vastly outdated standards and philosophies. They send all the wrong messages about the value of work and the purpose of supportive benefits for people with disabilities. And they have for decades remained largely unchanged, or even seriously reexamined by elected officials.
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2. Long Term Care (a.k.a., “What do I do if I need help every day to get up, bathe, get dressed, and go to the bathroom?”)
Millions of elderly people, and disabled people of all ages, need help from other people on a more or less daily basis. The traditional solution for this has been to move ... or more often be moved by others ... into some kind of congregate care facility, like a nursing home, assisted living, group home, or large “state hospital” or institution. And while most of us recognize that these are far from ideal solutions, not enough of us fully recognize alternatives like home care, or grasp the possibility of decisively shifting funding and regulations to allow more people to live in their own homes, on their own terms, while getting the help they need. Despite some real progress in recent years, nursing homes and other “facilities” are still the default for people who need regular help. If you need help, and you do nothing about it, that’s where you will probably end up. To stay independent, you have to fight. For the millions of disabled people who want a better, less confined and regulated life, this is exactly backwards. Home care and independence should be the default ... institutions the exception.
Candidates who address this issue and endorse real, practical choices for everyone can potentially earn the support not only of people with disabilities, but also families — including parents who worry about their disabled children’s futures, and adult children who worry about their aging parents. It’s an enormously important everyday issue for most Americans, yet it barely registers a blip on most voters and politicians’ political radar. There is so much room here for candidates to make inroads with disabled voters and their allies, while while changing the landscape of aging and disability for coming generations.
Despite the nearly 30 year old Americans with Disabilities Act, there’s still too much in our communities that’s inaccessible to disabled people. The ADA and local building codes have done a lot to make our communities more accessible than they were 40 or more years ago. But everyone with a disability, and our families and allies, know what it’s like to have our plans complicated or ruined by barriers in a store, restaurant, theater, or other public building. We all know what it’s like to face stairs without a ramp, or with a poorly-design and dangerous ramp. We all know what it’s like to find out too late that the “accessible” restroom is too small or poorly designed to be usable. We all know what happens when we are prevented from doing essential business, or understanding something vital for our legal or financial situation, because of inaccessible transportation, written materials, and websites. “But,” we say, “what about the ADA?”
What indeed? These days the only time the ADA comes up in government circles is when someone writes a bill to weaken it, and everyone else scrambles to preserve it. A candidate bold enough to propose beyond the ADA, to finish the job of retrofitting our communities for full access, might just catch the notice of even the most discouraged and cynical disabled voter.
Education of children and youth with disabilities is still a battleground of conflicting ideologies, bureaucratic and professional resistance, and mutual distrust. Parents battle teachers and administrators to make sure their kids’ unique needs are accommodated and their strengths nurtured and grown. Teachers struggle with conflicting feelings of hope, capability, lack of support, and professionalism. Administrators worry about compliance and cost. Everyone tries to find the right focus ... whether on specific teaching techniques, or the right classroom and socialization settings, on academic achievement, or future independent living and employment skills. And everywhere there are insidious incentives to just “give up” and retreat to the most comfortable fallback positions available.
This year, candidates have been addressing these issues mainly by calling for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s one overdue, but voters involved in education issues deserve more. They crave concrete evidence that someone understands the conflict and is willing to do what they can to sort it out.
5. Basic safety
Of course, recent events have shoved another long-term concern for disabled people back to the forefront — our basic physical safety in a world that despite decades of real progress is still hostile to people with disabilities. Traditionally, the safety of people with disabilities has mostly been discussed as a question of our individual ability to protect ourselves from what are typically regarded as inherent dangers we are held responsible for dealing with. Now, the two massive crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resurgent problem of police violence and its aftermath have revealed once again how ableism intersects and overlaps serious flaws in current medical and policing practices. Disabled people have always been vulnerable to the medical system’s weaknesses, and to the heightened dangers of interactions with police. These are not new problems. The most recent events have simply made them visible again.
This is another opportunity for candidates to speak to the real-life concerns of disabled people, particularly those of us dependent on medical treatment, and disabled people who are subject to other prejudices, like racism, on top of ableism. But it’s so much more than an avenue for politicians to earn votes from disabled people. It’s a life and death necessity that all of us need to grapple with.
Addressing these and other disability issues is the most immediate and concrete way candidates can reach out to disabled voters, while moving forward the actual humane and social goal of making life better and more equal for people with disabilities. But having a good plan alone may not be enough to convince the majority of disabled voters.
Disabled voters are just as likely to be mistrustful and cynical about politicians and their promises as anyone else ... even when those proposals “sound good.” A common complaint of many disabled voters is that admirable and ambitious disability plans are no good if there is no chance they can actually be implemented. Some take a practical view and doubt their feasibility in the current political climate, which includes a deeply divided and entrenched Congress. Others simply say that these plans are little more than fine words from candidates who want disabled people’s votes, but have no intention to fight for any changes beyond symbolic measures. History provides plenty of evidence for both of these pessimistic views.
However, in the world if disability policy especially, laying out concrete, innovative goals is essential, even if we know we know that no candidate can deliver on all of them. One of the problems with disability policy is it’s often hard to figure out out what government can and can’t actually do for disabled people. Sometimes we don’t even really know what to ask for. Ambitious and detailed plans can stretch disabled voters imaginations to encompass what might be possible, once we look beyond our own personal circumstances.
Meanwhile, disabled voters also look for certain practices, habits, and vibes from candidates that can indicate a genuinely positive and respectful attitude ... or a pandering, dismissive, condescending approach. For example:
We want to be seen, as individual voters, and as a potential constituency of persuadable voters with a known and actionable agenda.
Condescension disgusts us. We know some people can’t help it, that it’s more often habit than anything conscious intentional. But we expect candidates to do better than a pat on the head and an infantilizing photo.
We want to be consulted, not used. We want to be leaders, not just actors in a campaign ad.
Votes a candidate took in favor of disability rights 30 in the past don’t count for much. We are grateful, but more interested in what they plan to fight for and vote for in the future.
More than ever, there’s little excuse for candidates to offer anything less than real, substantive plans that address disabled people’s most persistent everyday problems. The first step for most candidates is to know what those problems are, and understand them. At the same time, disabled voters themselves can benefit from a fresh look at our own experiences — where the barriers we encounter come from, what can be done about them, and how best to demand action from people running for office.
November is only a few months away, but there’s still time for candidates and voters to do their disability policy homework. Let’s start now.
This is the first article in a series on disability issues that could influence disabled people’s votes in the U.S. General Elections this coming November.