The 2020 election has already seen an unprecedented level of engagement of the disability community by candidates. Differing approaches—from integrating disability as a lens across issues that include, but are not limited to, housing, democracy, and children’s issues, to stand-alone platforms that address parts of the communities and cover various intersections of race, gender, immigration, and LGBTQ identities—show that the issues facing people with disabilities are becoming a greater priority on the campaign trail than ever before.
However, even though 1 in 4 people has a disability and 1 in 3 households includes a person with a disability—totaling roughly 57 million people in the United States—there has yet to be a single question on the priorities of the community. Due to the unprecedented level of attacks on the disability community and their civil rights, any candidate who wants to be taken seriously needs to be prepared to answer the following questions:
1. It is still legal for disabled people to earn pennies an hour thanks to a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act. How will you close it and help these works transition to the fairly paid workplace?
For more than 80 years, a certain classification of employers has been able to pay disabled workers subminimum wage. Much of this work has been relegated to food service; janitorial work; mailroom and internal delivery; retail processing and inventory; office work; groundskeeping; and greeting at big-box stores. These employees often work in sheltered workshops, a work environment where disabled employees are isolated from people without disabilities and are frequently not offered career development or opportunities to transition to other positions or roles. With disability as a cause and consequence of poverty, the fact that a person’s poverty is literally tied into statute is beyond outdated. This year’s Raise the Wage Act was notable for its inclusion of subminimum wage workers through provisions to begin winding down existing workshops. The bipartisan Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, would phase out subminimum wage workshops over a period of six years; require increased supports to move workers from segregated to integrated workplaces where disabled workers would work alongside nondisabled peers; and include resources to incentivize program operators to make the transition.
2. Adding asset limits and work requirements to programs that help people with disabilities and their families access food, housing, and health care means that folks in need are constantly on the edge of economic instability. How would you address this?
Significant increases or elimination of asset limits would enable people with disabilities and their families to be able to save money without sacrificing access to services. The added costs of living with a disability average between $1,000 and 7,000 per year, whether it be a broken car, a health care emergency, or combating the effects of climate change. These increased costs prevent people with disabilities from being able to anticipate or cover those costs.
A growing number of states are adding work requirements to programs such as nutrition programs or Medicaid. Work requirements force unemployed and underemployed people to have to choose between health care and a job. Furthermore, though they claim to exempt people with disabilities, the data reveal otherwise, as people with chronic illnesses, family caregivers, cancer survivors, and people with mental illnesses or eating disorders could all be negatively affected. As seen in Arkansas, more than 8,000 people with disabilities lost health care in the first month of work requirements being implemented in the state. Instead, candidates should propose ideas such as job seeker’s allowance, a temporary disability program, or other solutions to meet folks where they are without penalizing them for being poor.
3. Almost 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 60 percent to 80 percent of polling places still remain inaccessible, leaving most disabled Americans unable to access the ballot box or see who they actually voted for. What would you do to increase access to democratic institutions for people with disabilities?
One of the new Congress’ first actions was to propose a bill to expand and secure democratic infrastructure in the United States. While H.R. 1 is a robust package, there is still much to be done in order to introduce an accessibility lens to the proposal. For example, many don’t realize that making voting day a federal holiday disproportionately negatively affects people with disabilities and low-income workers, who are less likely to get the day off and more dependent on public transit or personal assistance to be able to vote. Thus, policymakers working on any proposal advocating for doing so should partner a voting holiday with an increase in early voting, which increases the ability of people with disabilities to get to the polls. The discussion of voting security must include accessibility; approved paper ballots, for example, must be usable in conjunction with accessibility tools that would enable people with disabilities to verify their vote such as ballot marking devices. More resources must be provided for the training of poll workers, which should be conducted by community-based disability rights organizations. Furthermore, motor voter laws that allow people to register to vote at their local department of motor vehicles should be expanded to include disability service agencies, since large portions of the disability community are unable to drive. More resources need to be put into research and development to support solutions in order to ensure that people with disabilities can mark, verify, and cast a private vote.
4. Many candidates have talked about the need to invest in infrastructure. Clearly, this is important. In the past, accessibility has not been part of the conversation from the beginning, which has resulted in a persistent lack of access. What specifically would you to do ensure that accessibility and inclusion are included in your plan for the nation’s infrastructure and the jobs that come with it?
If done right, a program of national infrastructure investments could be a vast improvement in quality of life for people with disabilities. There are entire portions of cities today that disabled people cannot access due to inaccessible subway stations, lack of sidewalks or curb cuts, or unnecessary steps. This affects people’s ability to work, go to school, to go on dates, visit family, and engage in society. Proposed investments in infrastructure could result in increased accessibility, visitability, and inclusion of people with disabilities in society. There is still far to go in the private sector, but opportunities do exist. In 2018. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act, which would double the tax credit for renovations to improve accessibility and increase the number of small businesses that are eligible to receive it. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal contractors to meet a minimum of 7 percent representation of employees with disabilities across job groups, and increased enforcement can help ensure that major government contracts are awarded to companies meeting or exceeding these hiring goals.
5. How would you create a system of long-term services and supports that sustains the rights of disabled Americans to live in their homes as well as lifts up and supports the domestic workforce?
Two important pieces of legislation were introduced this year: the Disability Integration Act and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act. Increased federal investment is needed in long-term services and supports infrastructure, and changes need to be made to the social safety net in order to grant people with disabilities the flexibility to save money without losing access to care. That said, workers need increased wages, workforce training, retirement benefits, and health care. It is critical that policy tied to long-term supports and services includes changes to ensure the needs of people with intellectual disabilities are met, without furthering the likelihood of institutionalization. With the growing number of Baby Boomers entering retirement, a new administration would be wise to take this opportunity to reshape what home- and community-based supports should look like in the 21st century.
6. Natural disasters are all too common, and climate change disproportionately affects the disability community. What is your plan for ensuring that disability issues and the community are front and center in your planning and execution of emergency management planning and your climate agenda?
Considering that people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters and climate change, any agenda or policy proposal on these issues must integrate the needs and concerns of the disability community. In efforts to make communities more resilient and prepared, they must also be made more inclusive and accessible—and that includes all evacuation services and shelters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to reinvest in the recruitment and deployment of disability integration advisers to disaster areas to ensure that people with disabilities and their families are not neglected or subjected to civil rights violations before, during, or after the disaster. Furthermore, disability organizations on the ground should be able to draw down FEMA funds for the services they provide throughout the crisis, as outlined in the Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion for Disasters Act. On the front end, any climate proposal put forward needs to ensure that people with disabilities are not an afterthought and that experts from the community are at the table as decisions are being made to prevent or minimize any impact on programs, policies, or materials that are necessary for disabled people’s survival.
7. In more than 20 states, parents with disabilities can lose custody of their children largely on the basis of a disability diagnosis. How would you change this?
All types of families should have the right to parent with dignity. All families, including families with disabilities, should have access to comprehensive paid family and medical leave. Within the federal government, there need to be broad changes to combat the bias against families that include disabled parents. The Adoption and Safe Families Act needs to include language to address how parents with disabilities are treated in removal and reunification processes to account for lack of training and bias in family services. The U.S. Department of Justice should issue guidance about the ADA’s applicability to the family court system and increase enforcement. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services should include parenting as an activity of daily living so that funded services for disabled individuals can be targeted to include helping with basic needs. For example, laundry assistance could include a child’s laundry, and food preparation could include a child’s meals.
8. Lack of affordable and accessible housing continues to be a significant impediment to people with disabilities and their families achieving economic security What changes would you implement to remedy this?
Housing is a linchpin for the economic well-being of all communities. Reduction in investments and lack of fair housing enforcement have had a tremendous impact on moderate- to low-income folks throughout the past several years. Thus, any approach needs to be aggressive and deliberate in meeting the needs of those with the greatest housing burdens while not perpetuating the inequities of the past. As a first step, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to restore the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to help create sound and inclusive communities with access to the infrastructure and resources that every community member needs to thrive. There also needs to be a rapid and aggressive increase in federal rental assistance and affordable housing construction investments across the board, including: an expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and the National Housing Trust Fund, as well as upgrades to current federally subsidized, accessible housing stock with better monitoring mechanisms to ensure that these units are actually going to those with access needs. New home construction must incorporate universal design principles to optimize access for all types of dwellers and be built to last with environmentally safe and resilient materials. Lastly, there should be a federal push to guarantee legal counsel to tenants embroiled in eviction proceedings, as the rising number of evictions nationwide has only exacerbated the dire housing issues facing renters today—with people with disabilities being particularly at risk.
9. What policies would your administration advance to improve access to quality affordable mental health care and protect the civil rights of people with mental illness?
Any health care platform must ensure that mental health care is prioritized and covered to the same degree as physical health care. There needs to be increased federal funding to research best practices in mental health treatment for immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and communities of color. There needs to be a review of standards of protection of individuals’ rights under guardianship or of those who are institutionalized as well as an expansion of advocacy and due process supports to optimize an individual’s right to self-determination. What’s more, increasing enforcement of protections tied to medical information privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act—which cover how an individual’s personal information is stored and disclosed—is necessary to ensure that individuals’ information remains private and secure. These efforts must involve thinking through mechanisms for the protection of private health information via apps and social media technology and how it could be accessed as a means to discriminate.
10. Children with disabilities, especially those who are also people of color, often have unequal access to educational resources, despite the law guaranteeing such access. What will your administration do differently?
The school-to-prison pipeline is real, but data are still needed to create a full picture of its causes and consequences. The incoming secretary of education must enforce the Equity in IDEA rule, which would require data collection on the identification, placement, and discipline of students of color with disabilities. It is imperative that policymakers examine the challenges of both overrepresentation of students of color in special education, which can be caused by tests grounded in bias, lack of culturally competent assessments, or lack of accurate professional development on identification of disability in the classroom, and underrepresentation, which can be caused by the same factors but are grounded in such a way that leaves out students of color with disabilities. Taking both into consideration is important to ensure that students of color with disabilities are provided access to the services that they are entitled to by law to help them be successful in school. Policymakers also need to ensure that the schools they attend are safe and that students with disabilities are not forcibly secluded or restrained. Support must also be provided to teachers to ensure that staff are trained to meet the needs of students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. Additionally, states should not be creating mental health registries as a substitute for needed gun violence prevention legislation. The recent trend advocating for families to identify any mental health treatment their children have received as part of reenrollment in school is an additional attempt to place the responsibility for gun violence on students with disabilities instead of on gun manufacturers. This, along with the administration’s repeated desire to increase surveillance and expand institutionalization in order to lock up anyone perceived as mentally ill—under the guise of addressing pervasive gun violence—only serves to violate the civil rights of people with disabilities instead of getting at real solutions.
The next administration has the unique opportunity to rectify not only many of the losses that the disability community has faced these past three years but also the numerous historic wrongs that go back decades. As we’ve seen with innovations such as curb cuts, closed captioning, and texting, increasing access for people with disabilities improves the lives of all people and should be a top priority for any candidate campaigning for the highest office in the land.
Rebecca Cokley is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.