2020 Democrats put spotlight on disabilities issues

2020 Democrats put spotlight on disabilities issues
© iStock, The Hill illustration

Disability advocates are seeing a new spotlight on their concerns in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

From using sign language on the campaign trail to vowing to appoint a disabled Cabinet secretary, Democratic candidates are focusing new attention on issues faced by disabled individuals, including access to long-term care and wage discrimination.

“You can look at every major issue for the presidential candidates in 2020 and frame it as a disability issue: health care, education, employment, climate change, inequality, mass incarceration,” Alice Wong, co-founder of the #CripTheVote campaign, said.

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The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 20 percent of Americans have some form of disability and 10 percent have a severe disability.

A 2018 Luntz Global poll found that 34 percent of voters with disabilities consider themselves swing voters, 36 percent are Democrat and 29 percent are Republican.

“Disabled people have always been fighting the status quo and in the resistance because the world was never built for us. The increased visibility of disabled people on the frontlines, in the rooms where it happens and online created a critical mass that cannot be ignored by anyone running for office,” Wong said.

Wong added that a turning point for the attention on issues affecting people with disabilities were the demonstrations in 2017 to protect former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which had been under threat by congressional Republicans. 

The 2017 demonstrations have “given us a little more confidence that we can actually affect politics and policy,” Andrew Pulrang, a co-partner in the #CripTheVote campaign, said. “What I think is still not clear is how deeply that experience penetrated into the disability community … beyond the core community of activists.”

#CripTheVote, which Wong describes as a nonpartisan online movement, has worked to encourage disabled people to participate in politics since early 2016 and ensure that political candidates don’t merely use disabled people “as tokens or props.” 

Already in this campaign cycle, disability concerns are appearing in announcement speeches from candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally Warren introduces universal child care legislation MORE (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally MORE.

“We can’t be blind to the fact that the rules in our country have been rigged against other people for a long time,” Warren said when announcing her presidential bid earlier this year. “Women, LGBTQ Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants, people with disabilities — and we need to call it out.”

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And Biden was among 15 Democrats running in 2020 praised by RespectAbility, a non-partisan and non-profit disability rights advocacy group, for including accurate closed captioning on campaign announcement videos.

Candidates like Warren and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally MORE (I-Vt.) are also tying disability issues to their signature economic messages. 

Warren has introduced legislation that would bar the Treasury Department from forcing severely disabled borrowers to pay taxes on canceled student loans. And Sanders’s website warns that “the civil rights of people with disabilities are not always protected and respected.”

Meanwhile, at least two candidates have pledged to appoint a disabled person to their potential administration.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally Biden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate MORE (D), who himself is fluent in American Sign Language, said in April that he would “absolutely” commit to including people with disabilities in future campaign ads and hiring them as campaign staff.

And Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandOvernight Health Care: Democrats attack after Trump revives talk of ObamaCare replacement | Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control face major obstacles | CVS investing M to fight teen e-cig use Overnight Health Care: Democrats attack after Trump revives talk of ObamaCare replacement | Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control face major obstacles | CVS investing M to fight teen e-cig use Trump's 2020 campaign strategy is to be above the law MORE (D-N.Y.) said at a May event that she “will commit to making sure someone with disabilities” is part of her administration as well as her Cabinet. 

Gillibrand’s pledge came after she faced criticism from disability rights advocates for co-sponsoring a bill that would put a time limit on opioid prescriptions. 

She responded to that criticism with a Medium post in March, writing: “To the patients and disability advocates who have raised concerns: Thank you for sharing your stories. I am listening. I would be more than happy to meet with you to hear your ideas about how to make this bill better — and to ensure that it does what it was originally intended to do without harming patients.”

Political lobbying around disability issues operates on two levels, according to Wong and Pulrang. There are issues that affect a broad swath of the population but disproportionately disabled people, and issues specific to disabled people.

“Some issues, like health care, housing, education and law enforcement, have very significant meaning for disabled people. And then there are quite specific policy issues that really are primarily ‘disability issues’ … like long-term care, accessibility and disability rights laws,” Pulrang said.

Pulrang told The Hill that long-term care access is one of the foremost issues affecting disabled people.

“Helping people who need everyday assistance to stay in their own homes and communities and avoid unwanted ‘placement’ in nursing homes and ‘residential facilities’ is fundamental, both to the disability community and anyone dealing with the complications of aging,” he said.

Sanders stood out among the 2020 Democratic candidates by including a disabilities section on his campaign website; it includes a section on incorporating home-based and community-based care into his proposed “Medicare for All” plan.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate Biden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate Poll: Six Dems lead Trump in Florida match-ups MORE (D-Calif.) also co-sponsored the Disability Integration Act in 2018 with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerBig tech braces for antitrust crackdown Big tech braces for antitrust crackdown 58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill MORE (R-Wis.), which would require private insurance to cover long-term care options such as personal care attendants and in-home nursing care.

A spokesperson for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) told The Hill his campaign also supports improving access to home-based care.

“As we move forward with a plan for universal coverage, Beto supports a plan like Medicare for America, which covers long-term care, including nursing homes as well as home and community-based services,” the spokesperson for the O’Rourke campaign said.

Gillibrand has also addressed in-home care in the Senate, co-sponsoring the reintroduced Disability Integration Act in 2019. The bill would require insurance companies that offer institutional services to disabled people and seniors to offer those services locally so that patients would have access without being institutionalized.

Another major issue Pulrang and Wong emphasized was a waiver system that allows employers to pay disabled people less than the minimum wage. Last year, Warren joined five other Senate Democrats in a letter to Labor Secretary Alex AcostaRene (Alex) Alexander AcostaTop aide to Labor secretary to leave amid friction with White House George Conway slams Trump for calling Biden 'creepy': You 'palled around with Jeffrey Epstein' Melania Trump expands mission of 'Be Best' on its one-year anniversary MORE demanding information on the so-called 14(c) certificates, the waivers that allow employers to pay disabled people sub-minimum wage.

Harris, meanwhile, co-sponsored Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Overnight Health Care: Biden infuriates abortion-rights groups with stance on Hyde Amendment | Trump tightens restrictions on fetal tissue research | Democrats plan event to scrutinize Trump's mental health MORE Jr.’s (D-Pa.) Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which would ban the practice, in March.

Pulrang told The Hill banning this practice is one of the most “specific, emotionally resonant issues” affecting disabled people.

As the election draws nearer, the images of the 2017 protests and the increased prevalence of social media in politics are both likely to continue bringing disability issues to the forefront, according to Wong.

#CripTheVote will not make an endorsement in the 2020 race and has largely been concentrating its efforts on communicating with campaigns about issues impacting disabled people.

“This is one issue we care deeply about since there is a need for government to reflect all of us,” she said. “We are usually left out or added as an afterthought in policymaking and political campaigns and this is a huge omission that is unacceptable.”

-- Updated on May 23 at 12:42 p.m.