disability rights

Where Is the “Equality of Opportunity” for the Disabled Community?


Today is the 29th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and yet so many people with disabilities live in poverty. Do the Democratic presidential candidates have a plan for that?



For years, Liz Weintraub, a person with cerebral palsy, worked at a sheltered workshop, where she did menial tasks, such as stuffing inserts into newspapers and completing “boring workbook pages.” “Those were not jobs I chose, not jobs I liked, or even jobs that I was good at,” she says. “I don’t even know how much money I was paid, that information was not shared with me.”

Weintraub was not content working at a sheltered workshop and fought hard to get a job where she could earn a living wage and do work she enjoyed. “I advocated to do more, it took years, but today I am the Senior Advocacy Specialist at the Association for University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) where I have a job that uses my interest in policy, a job that gives me a chance to make a real difference, and a job that lets me keep learning and growing,” Weintraub says proudly.

But not everyone with disabilities has been as fortunate to see such a turnaround in their career. It’s been 29 years since Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), promising people with disabilities “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.” And while the ADA has led to greater opportunities for people like Weintraub and me—people with disabilities—it has not addressed the issue of poverty that has persistently plagued our community. As 2020 Democratic presidential candidates vie for the support of the disability vote, politicians must finally address the economic wellbeing of disabled people.

On July 26, 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law, proclaiming, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down!” This landmark civil rights legislation prohibits discrimination against disabled people in nearly every aspect of everyday life, including employment, state and local government services, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.

Poverty and disability are unfortunate friends. Indeed, disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty. It can result in decreased wages, higher unemployment rates, barriers to education, and high expenses. It is also a consequence, as poverty can lead to limited access to health services, exposure to environmental toxins, and unsafe work conditions.

Because of the ADA, people with disabilities enjoy far more rights and opportunities to participate in their communities. However, research suggests the rates of poverty and unemployment has risen in the nearly three decades since the ADA was enacted. Data from the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University show a widening gap over time between disabled and nondisabled people when it comes to poverty: Today, people with disabilities are twice as likely as people without disabilities to live below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the same time, the median household income has decreased for disabled people while increasing for nondisabled people since the passage of the ADA, according to NPR. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate people with disabilities have far lower median incomes than people without disabilities ($23,006 compared to $35,070).

Further, although the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled people, the employment rates of people with disabilities remain abysmally low. Notably, the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University found that the number of people with disabilities who are employed has declined since the ADA was signed into law. The U.S. Department of Labor has similarly found that for years, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities has remained higher than the rate for people without disabilities.

In 2018, 8 percent of people with disabilities were unemployed, compared to 3.7 of people with disabilities. People with disabilities also worked part-time at higher rates than people without disabilities, at 31 percent and 17 percent, respectively. One of the most striking employment disparities for disabled people exists in the labor force participation rate: Eight in 10 disabled people are neither employed nor looking for work. Conversely, for nondisabled people, that number drops to three in ten.

While the reasons for the high rates of poverty and unemployment among disabled people are complex, they generally center on three broad causes. First, current government policies and programs still disincentivize working (e.g., Medicaid’s strict income and asset limits), meaning people with disabilities often have to choose between working and receiving vital benefits. Second, some people with disabilities are legally paid less than minimum wage. Third, despite the ADA, disabled people encounter significant discrimination in the workplace.

Presidential candidates frequently talk about lifting people out of poverty through tax breaks, college loan debt relief, and raising the minimum wage. Candidates, however, have paid far less attention to combating the economic disparities faced by disabled people.

To be sure, the disregard of disabled voters is not unusual. The disability voting bloc has traditionally been overlooked by candidates, and 2020 presidential candidates have mostly ignored disability issues thus far.

The good news is that several of the policies being discussed by candidates could help to address the economic disparities faced by disabled people—if developed and implemented with people with disabilities in mind (and that includes seeking the advice of people with disabilities).

“When disabled voters are watching the 2020 presidential election, they are looking for leaders who are not afraid of change or conflict,” says Colleen Flanagan, executive director of Disability Action for America, an organization building the political power of the disability vote. “They want a leader who recognizes their worth and who is prepared to fight the system barriers blocking too many disabled Americans for far too long.”

Currently, Medicaid is the only health insurer that completely funds home- and community-based services, which allow disabled people to live in their communities with necessary assistance. However, Medicaid also leads to significant economic hardship among people with disabilities. To qualify for Medicaid services, people must meet financial eligibility requirements. Because of these stringent income rules, people with disabilities are sometimes forced to choose between working and receiving Medicaid.

For me, this issue is very personal. I rely on personal care assistants (PCAs) to help me complete everyday tasks. Medicaid is the only health insurer that funds PCA services and if it were not for my PCAs, I would be unable to work or participate in society. Fortunately, I live in Massachusetts, which has a Medicaid program for disabled working adults with no asset or income limits. Instead, beneficiaries pay a monthly premium based on their income.

However, not every state has such a program, which I learned first-hand when I got a great job in Washington, D.C., in 2011. I did not qualify for the Medicaid program because my earnings exceeded the state’s income limits. At the same time, I earned far too little to be able to afford to pay PCAs out-of-pocket. After two years of draining my savings to pay for PCAs, I was forced to move back to Massachusetts. Disabled people should not have to choose between getting out of bed and working.

Medicare for All or some type of government-run, universal health insurance could help to increase the employment rates of disabled people by allowing them to work and still receive health insurance. Nonetheless, questions remain about whether Medicare for All will adequately cover the needs of people with disabilities. Disabled people are especially concerned that Medicare for All may not provide home- and community-based services.

Notably, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has worked with disability advocates to address these concerns and signaled that his Medicare for All policy would include home- and community-based services. Other candidates should similarly engage people with disabilities as they develop policy proposals.

“They should organize roundtable discussions and listen to the issues that matter most to disabled people,” Flanagan said.

Further, Democratic presidential candidates have offered their support for raising the minimum wage. Given the wage disparities between disabled and non-disabled people, this would help lift many people with disabilities out of poverty.

At the same time, however, candidates must also recognize that some people with disabilities legally earn pennies an hour in sheltered workshops—isolated work-settings, where disabled people work alongside one another, often earning far less than minimum wage. Specifically, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed more than 80 years ago, allows employers to pay disabled employees a subminimum wage by obtaining a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although Weintraub now has a job that she loves, that wasn’t always a forgone conclusion. “All my family could ever dream for me, was a job in a library. Yes, I got that job, but I dreamt of being a lobbyist one day. I proved them wrong, because  I now I have a career in disability policy.”

“Real work is for everyone and all means all and never stop dreaming,” she continued.

Thanks to the steadfast advocacy of activists such as Weintraub, efforts are underway to eliminate sheltered workshops and end subminimum wages. Just last week, the House passed the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and notably phaseout subminimum wages for people with disabilities. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is not expected to pass.

While some candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sanders, have indicated their opposition to subminimum wages, the issue has mostly been overlooked by candidates, even as they offer their support for raising the minimum wage.

Notably, last week Sen. Warren tweeted, “Our fight for a federal minimum wage will not come at the cost of employment for Americans with disabilities. Creating a false choice between the two is cruel and ableist. Americans with disabilities are Americans deserving of equal pay and opportunity.”

To achieve “equal pay and opportunity,” candidates need to commit to ensuring that we are enabled to fully participate in our communities. This means changing programs, such as Medicaid, that limit our ability to earn a living wage and still receive needed supports. It also means finally ending an antiquated policy that allows employers to pay disabled people to be paid far less than nondisabled people. Further, people with disabilities must be supported in reaching their employment goals, including through services that train disabled people as well as help them to further their education.

Despite the ADA, people with disabilities continue to encounter pervasive discrimination by employers. In a 2015 study, researchers at Rutgers University found notable bias in a field experiment when they sent out job applications for more than 6,000 fictional accounting positions. Two-thirds of the applicants disclosed their disabilities in their cover letters, while one-third did not mention a disability. While the hypothetical candidates’ disabilities would not interfere with the accounting work, and the applicants were otherwise equally qualified, the disabled applicants received 26 percent fewer responses from employers.

While presidential candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Warren, have proposed policies to address the gender pay gap, it appears few candidates have explicitly proposed policies that address disability-based discrimination in the workforce.

Several of the candidates responded to a survey by the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, where, among other topics, they discussed how they would address employment issues facing disabled people if elected.

Most Democratic candidates said they oppose paying people with disabilities subminimum wages. Sen. Cory Booker said, “Anyone who wants to work should be able to do so, in a job that pays a living wage and offers meaningful benefits. That’s why I’m a co-sponsor of the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and phase out so increase the subminimum wages for workers with disabilities, as well as for tipped workers and youth workers.”

Candidates also proposed policies to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, for example, said that as president he would create programs that “incentivize” employers to hire disabled people. Mayor Pete Buttigieg responded that he would ensure that federal agencies hire more disabled veterans.

Sen. Harris said, among other things, she would appoint an Attorney General who “prioritize[d] enforcement of the ADA.” “We can reduce the unemployment rate for people with disabilities without the injustice of sacrificing fair pay,” Harris remarked. And today, in recognition of the anniversary of the ADA, Harris announced the launch of her campaign’s Americans with Disabilities Leadership Council, which will work on disability policy issues.

Enforcement of the ADA is certainly needed. In March, Vice News reported the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating and litigating 60 percent fewer disability-rights cases than the agency did during the Obama administration. Notably, the Obama administration’s DOJ litigated several sheltered workshop cases, arguing that these settings resulted in the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities. It does not appear that the Trump administration’s DOJ has continued such efforts.

The 2020 campaign is still in its infancy, and there are many ways for candidates to address issues facing people with disabilities. First, candidates must employ disabled staff, and that includes in leadership positions. Gillibrand, O’Rourke, and Buttigieg have all publicly promised to hire disabled staff in their campaigns or administrations. Buttigieg was the first candidate to hire someone with a known disability, and has since hired a second person with a disability. Sen. Sanders also has a Deaf staffer. Second, candidates must ensure that all campaign events are fully accessible. Third, candidates must quickly address the inaccessibility of their websites. Fourth, candidates must propose policies that address issues facing disabled people, and that includes incorporating people with disabilities into policies related to income inequality and employment. All issues affect people with disabilities, and it is time we are finally recognized by candidates.

“Recognizing the power of the disability vote is a winning strategy for 2020 candidates,” Flanagan says. “They need to make sure all of their organizing, especially digital online organizing, is accessible to people with disabilities. Disabled voters want to be engaged. It is a mistake to ignore them.”

Nearly 30 years ago, the ADA was passed, promising equality for people with disabilities. Nonetheless, poverty and unemployment continue to plague the disability community. As presidential candidates vie for support, they can no longer afford to overlook people with disabilities. More importantly, disabled people can no longer afford to be ignored.

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