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.
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 WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook 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.”
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 SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 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 GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers 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 HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.) also co-sponsored the Disability Integration Act in 2018 with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerLobbying world House Judiciary Committee calls on Bezos to testify as part of antitrust probe GOP, Democratic senators call for more assistance to local media in coronavirus stimulus 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 AcostaAlex Alexander AcostaAppeals court finds prosecutors’ secret plea agreement with Epstein didn’t break law Florida sheriff ends work release program criticized over Jeffery Epstein The Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by National Association of Manufacturers — Whistleblower complaint roils Washington MORE demanding information on the so-called 14(c) certificates, the waivers that allow employers to pay disabled people sub-minimum wage.
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Harris, meanwhile, co-sponsored Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick Casey21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests Overnight Health Care: Trump says US ‘terminating’ relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge 10 things to know today about coronavirus 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.