In unprecedented fashion, disability-related issues were prominent in this last electoral cycle. During the primaries, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE, Jeb Bush and John Kasich promised to address persistent economic inequalities confronting people with disabilities, as well as address the occupational ghettoization of workers with disabilities into dangerous, lower-paying employment.
Clinton, who spent a great part of her adult life helping members of historically disadvantaged groups that include people with disabilities, moved from a narrow focus on expanding social and health services to a broader platform addressing deep-rooted inequalities that keep people with disabilities down.
Had Clinton won the election, we would no doubt demand that her campaign promises about helping people with disabilities be translated into policy. What might we expect from the Trump Administration?
Trump's plans for the country are anyone's guess right now. Much of the post-election anxiety is the result of the vague, sometimes conflicting, and often blustering rhetoric by the president-elect across an array of policy areas. To say that Trump’s platform lacked policy specificities is an understatement. In that vein, Trump has made little mention of disability-related social policy.
Rather, Trump’s association with disability in the campaign came by way of his mocking Serge Kovaleski, the New York Times reporter with arthrogryposis.
Trump's potential cabinet choices are giving the public some sense as to his possible policy orientations and they don't look good for minority groups, including people with disabilities. When Trump announced his consideration of Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE as attorney general, many pointed to Sessions’ racist comments made back in 1986. However, Sessions has also expressed a particular position on disability rights that is cause for concern.
In 2000, Sessions proclaimed on the senate floor that:
“We have created a complex system of federal regulations and laws that have created lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children, and that are a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”
He was referring to the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – a policy guaranteeing children with disabilities the right to free and appropriate public education. Access to mainstream education was a key feature of the disability rights struggle.
Indeed, when Hubert Humphrey — the former vice president who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 — proposed amending the Civil Rights Act in 1971 to include disability as grounds for discrimination, he was partially motivated by an incident where his granddaughter who had down syndrome was denied admission to kindergarten.
The fight for inclusion in mainstream education was fraught with many challenges in the decades following the rights momentum of the early 1970s — often pitting so-called practical considerations against rights and equality. Disability rights activists and sympathetic policymakers were met with obstacles by subsequent administrations as well as the courts which challenged rights legislation enacted by Congress.
Sessions’ attack on a policy meant to improve social and economic outcomes among people with disabilities draws from a well-established narrative created by those seeking social policy retrenchment. Similar arguments were used against the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Detractors, including politicians and leaders of the business community, argued that laws like the ADA reflected a reregulation of the labor market which attacked the autonomy of private actors. They further argued that the law would cause unintended harms since employers would be less likely to hire people with disabilities fearing new prospects of litigation.
In 2008, Congress finally addressed these assertions with the ADA Restoration Act specifically targeting a series of perverse court interpretations that undermine congressional intent in disability rights.
But if Sessions’ comments signal the position of the new administration, then the fight may not be over.
Access to education even at an early age is key in the fight against persistent economic inequalities. Barriers to access, interruptions in educational careers, and discrimination, limit employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Educational segregation not only creates inequalities in the quality of education, but it also limits the kinds of human and social capital — social networks — that play an important role in connecting individuals to a variety of opportunities, including jobs. Rather than attacking laws meant to address economic marginalization and cumulative disadvantage, the new administration should focus on how existing policies can improve education and training so that people with disabilities can break out of occupational ghettos.
David Pettinicchio is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. His research examines the impact of policy making, implementation and judicial interpretation on employment and earnings outcomes among people with disabilities.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.