disability rights

Will Biden and Sanders Ignore the Disabled Community?


Unlike many of the former Democratic candidates, the two frontrunners have done little to court the disabled vote. How will they fight for us against an appallingly ableist president?



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When Sen. Elizabeth Warren suspended her presidential campaign last week, it was devastating for many progressives. At one time, the field included women, people of color, and a gay man. However, for people with disabilities, such as myself, Warren ending her run for president may have also marked the end of candidates truly partnering with our community.

Right now, the disability policies of the two Democratic front-runners—former Vice-President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders—such as they are, leave a lot to be desired. Consider that the disability community is a sizable voting bloc. Approximately one in four adults in the United States—or 61 million people—have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the 2016 election, nearly 63 million eligible voters were disabled or lived with someone with a disability, according to researchers at Rutgers University. And voter turnout among people with disabilities “surged” in the 2018 midterm elections.

Candidates, nonetheless, have traditionally ignored our community—that is, until the 2020 Democratic primaries. From releasing comprehensive policy plans, to participating in events for people with disabilities, to hiring disabled staff, the disability community has received unprecedented attention by presidential hopefuls, such as Warren.

Over the past several months, Sens. Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Sanders, as well as former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro issued disability policy plans. While the plans varied in quality and comprehensiveness, most plans addressed employment, education, long-term services, health care, transportation, voting, and housing. Some candidates, such as Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders, included the rights of parents with disabilities in their plans—a topic that receives little attention. The plans most widely celebrated by people with disabilities also proposed policies about criminal justice, climate change, emergency management, and repealing outdated rules that restrict some people with disabilities from marrying because their benefits will be reduced. Notably, all of the above current and former candidates have pledged to repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows employers to pay disabled people sub-minimum wages.

A crucial part of the most widely praised disability-policy proposals was the ways some candidates partnered with disabled people to create their plans. On the day Warren released her plan, for example, she used Twitter to express her gratitude to advocates, such as Rebecca Cokley, Vilissa Thompson, and Julia Bascom, for their help in crafting her disability policy proposals. Sanders and Buttigieg similarly acknowledged advocates who advised their campaigns when they issued their plans. Conversely, Klobuchar was criticized for not consulting people with disabilities when developing her plan.

Biden, however, still does not have a comprehensive disability plan. A page on his website briefly describes how people with disabilities are included in his education, health care, long-term care, and criminal-justice plans, but the information therein is extremely vague and lacks specific policy proposals. He also does not appear to be actively engaging with people with disabilities.

But disability policy plans are not the only way candidates have recognized people with disabilities during the 2020 election. Warren, Buttigieg, and Castro, for example, held Twitter town halls where people with disabilities were able to ask them about their proposed disability policies. Neither Sanders nor Biden have held similar Twitter town halls, although the co-founders of #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online movement, have invited all the candidates to do so.

Candidates appeared to finally understand that they could not take our votes for granted but instead needed to actually court our support. During her farewell remarks to campaign staff, Warren acknowledged the importance of her engagement with the disability community: “We have shown that we can build plans in collaboration with the people who are most affected. You know, just one example: Our disability plan is a model for our country, and, even more importantly, the way we relied on the disability communities to help us get it right will be a more important model.”

Now, however, with Warren and others out of the race, it increasingly feels like we will once again be disrespected and overlooked.

Although Biden has done some positive things for disability rights, including co-sponsoring the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, it’s still not clear he’s the candidate we can count on.

In late January, for example, a viral video depicted Biden appearing to  “pet” Samuel Habib, a man with a disability, during a campaign event. Such condescension of people with disabilities is, unfortunately, far too common. However, we should expect better of someone vying for the presidency.

Last month, Biden sparked outrage among some people with disabilities during a CNN town hall. The former VP, who has had a speech disability his entire life, was asked what advice he would give a college student who also stuttered. “You know, stuttering, when you think about it, is the only handicap that people still laugh about. That they still humiliate people about. And they don’t even mean to,” Biden said.

After this response, people quickly took to Twitter to discuss how out of touch Biden was with the experiences of people with disabilities. Stephanie Tait, a disabled author, speaker, and advocate, tweeted: “Sure Joe, no one EVER mocks something like my tremors. No one would ever laugh at me spasming because they think I look funny. No one finds any disability worthy of mocking unless it’s stuttering.” Alice Wong, a co-founder of #CripTheVote, similarly remarked: “This kind of comment, similar to the phrase “X is the last accepted form of bigotry,” sets up an oppression olympics situation which harms EVERYONE.”

In short, Biden’s lack of a comprehensive disability policy plan and these recent events raise many red flags.

Sanders, the other Democratic frontrunner, also has not done much to demonstrate his allyship. To be sure, Sanders has been celebrated by advocates for proposing bold and comprehensive disability policies. But he was the last to issue his, and only did so four days before the Iowa caucuses. As writer Sara Luterman wrote for The American Prospect, Sanders’s commitment to people with disabilities was not a foregone conclusion but instead an “evolution.” During the 2016 election, for example, many in the disability community criticized him for not paying attention to our issues. Specifically, unlike his then-opponent Hillary Clinton, Sanders never released a comprehensive disability plan.

Also, his proposed Medicare for All plan during the 2016 election did not include long-term services for people with disabilities. Fortunately, he listened to disability advocates’ concerns, and his current health care plan explicitly includes these important services.

Sanders, nonetheless, still has lots to do to gain the support of people with disabilities, and it’s not clear he is taking it seriously. In fact, recently Sanders has been campaigning with former candidate Marianne Williamson, who is known for being ableist. In addition to being an anti-vaxxer, she has expressed support for sheltered workshops that pay sub-minimum wages to disabled people and has said that chronic health conditions can be treated with love. As writer Kendall Brown tweeted, “Marianne Williamson is revolting and a danger to the disability community. For Bernie Sanders not only to embrace her endorsement but also PUT HER ON STAGE at a rally is disappointing & makes me doubt Sanders’ commitment to the disability community.”

The Trump administration has been hostile toward people with disabilities, who have spent the first year of this administration  putting their lives on the line to save the Affordable Care Act. Under Trump, students with disabilities have lost important protections, and the U.S. Department of Justice has dramatically decreased its enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the ADA. The Trump administration’s “public charge” rule directly targets immigrants with disabilities. And, just last week, we learned that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services failed a blind man by not providing him a citizenship exam in Braille.

The 2020 election is arriving faster than we think, and its results will be hugely consequential for disabled people and others from marginalized communities. People with disabilities are left wondering whether either of the remaining Democratic candidates will be a strong ally to the disability community. Hopefully, we find out sooner rather than later.

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