As Biden surges, disabled activists fear being left behind

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Story at a glance

  • The former vice president, one of only three remaining candidates, is the only major contender who has not released a disability plan.
  • Biden has pointed to his backing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but activists say further commitment is needed.

With former Vice President Joe Biden now the only major Democratic candidate not to put forth a detailed disability proposal, some disabled activists are concerned their issues will be left by the wayside without concerted pressure on the front-runner.

After his landslide victory Feb. 29 in South Carolina’s Democratic primary and a series of Super Tuesday wins, Biden leads the pack of White House hopefuls still in the running: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

Unlike Sanders and former candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Biden has yet to issue an in-depth disability policy plan, which has left some activists frustrated.

His campaign website has a section on disability issues, where Biden pledges to protect Medicaid funding and fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but it is significantly less detailed than the plans other candidates have released.

“[T]he absence of a detailed disability policy proposal is unacceptable,” Elena Hung, executive director of the advocacy group Little Lobbyists, told Changing America in an email. “Biden’s record cannot sufficiently serve as a substitute for a comprehensive plan that addresses the concerns of the disability community.”

“The primary race is still ongoing and though the field has narrowed, the expectation of the disability community is the same — for the candidates to understand that all policy issues are disability issues,” Hung added. “We saw an unprecedented number of campaigns release comprehensive disability plans, and we will continue to push for all remaining candidates to do the same.”

Andrew Pulrang, an activist who co-coordinates posts with CripTheVote, a hashtag used to discuss the intersection of disability and politics, told Changing America he will continue to focus his efforts on Twitter outreach to both Biden and Sanders.

“I think disability organizations also need to put the pressure on all the remaining candidates to treat disability issues with due attention and care. And Biden supporters who also care about disability issues can really make an impact by encouraging their candidate to come up with a more substantial set of plans,” Pulrang said in an email.

“And going back to Twitter, both Sanders and Biden have an open invitation to do a chat with #CripTheVote, where they can hear from disabled voters and interact with them in real time,” he added.

Both Warren and Buttigieg held digital town halls in the hashtag before suspending their campaigns.

As far as Biden’s history on disability issues, Pulrang said, “My impression from what Biden and his campaign have said so far is that he leans pretty heavily on his past support for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“That’s a plus for him, but it’s a 30-year-old law, and for younger disabled people particularly it may seem like pretty close to the minimum a candidate can say,” he added. “I think Biden may also still have a bit of residual goodwill from disabled people who liked the Obama years. But again, that already feels like a long time ago.”

Alice Wong, who co-coordinates CripTheVote tweets with Pulrang, agreed that Biden needs to offer disabled voters more than his history of support for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It’s been thirty years and he needs to demonstrate real understanding and actions advancing disability rights,” she told Changing America in an email.

“I’m still salty about his recent interaction with disabled college student Samuel Habib captured on video and have to wonder about his attitudes toward disabled people in general beyond policy,” she added, referencing an incident in which the former vice president patted Habib’s face in response to a question about education policy.

Biden’s lack of policy proposals on disability is “something I have found frustrating because the Disability Community has reached out to the Biden campaign through many channels,” Gregg Beratan, who also co-coordinates CripTheVote, told Changing America.

“I’m tempted to tell people to revive something we did in the midterms that we called the #CripTheVote challenge. We urged people to find their politicians and put them on the spot on disability issues,” he added in an email. “If Joe Biden gets asked at every stop when he is going to produce a Disability Policy I have to think he eventually will.”

Hung, who backed Warren during her presidential run and was part of the working group that wrote the candidate’s disability plan, said Biden would be well served by adopting Warren’s policy proposal, referencing a campaign created by the progressive advocacy group MoveOn encouraging Biden to adopt some of Warren’s proposals, including her disability plan, which was widely praised among activists.

“The value of a comprehensive disability plan is the same going into the general election: this time, to distinguish the candidate from President Trump, who has relentlessly attacked the disability community via harmful policies throughout his administration,” she told Changing America.

“Plans for the disability community by Warren, Castro, and Buttigieg, for example, have great value to future candidates at every level running for office. They are models on how to address the priorities of a specific community without siloing their issues — they must be intertwined with related plans in substantive ways,” Wong added. “The disability plans by these three also show how important it is to seek engagement and critique with actual disabled people.”

Changing America has reached out to the Biden campaign for comment.