There are 61 million people with disabilities in the United States. One-third of U.S. households have people with disabilities, and that number will likely increase over time, as the long-term effects of the coronavirus are still unknown. It is clear from past outbreaks such as the Spanish flu, scarlet fever, and polio that any governmental response should include people with disabilities—both those disabled individuals who acquire the coronavirus and those who may become disabled because of it. Considering the broader economic and health care impacts that the virus is having—as well as the significant poverty that people with disabilities and their families experience—it is unacceptable that the first three packages Congress has proposed thus far neglect people with disabilities. According to the National Council on Disability, “People with disabilities make up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. working-age population; however, they account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty.” Additionally, the disability community is more likely to work low-wage jobs, often at part-time rates, that do not come with sick leave or other benefits.
Instead of proposing policy solutions that shore up the social safety net and provide people with disabilities and their families with resources to meet their needs in an ever-shifting political and economic climate, legislative efforts have focused on exempting poor and disabled people from receiving cash benefits, attacking Medicaid recipients, and waiving civil rights. This response runs the risk of furthering the spread of the virus, considering people with disabilities and underlying conditions are the most vulnerable.
There is a real opportunity going into the fourth legislative package—thanks to the increased advocacy of the disability community—that Congress will turn its attention in this direction. If Congress were to provide supports and services such as paid family leave or home- and community-based services, people could refrain from leaving their homes and instead follow shelter-in-place guidance and work to “flatten the curve,” meaning slow the rate of transmission.
Policies that would help people with disabilities
Fortunately, there are several proposals that would have a positive impact on the economic status, health care, and civil rights of the disability community. The coronavirus has some policymakers focused on how to improve circumstances for low-income individuals who are affected on multiple fronts. Many of these legislative solutions are grounded in concepts laid out in CAP’s 2019 report, “Advancing Economic Security for People with Disabilities.”
Paid family and medical leave
Paid family and medical leave proposals have been floated the past several Congresses. This past week, Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced a revised paid family leave proposal that would help families of people with disabilities who have lost support from personal care attendants due to policies tied to social distancing and the current strain on the health care system. The legislation provides access to paid family leave for families who normally employ a caregiver but need to take leave to care for an adult child with a disability. In earlier versions of the legislation in response to the coronavirus, that provision had been removed. This improvement to existing proposals would provide much-needed support to families that are already struggling.
Raised and eliminated asset limits
Unless changes are made to current policies, a cash benefit provided to all could endanger the ability of people with disabilities to access health care, nutrition programs, and other lifesaving services and supports. In order to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), people with disabilities are unable to have more than $2,000 in the bank; if they have more than that amount, they risk losing their benefits. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Chris Coons (D-DE) have proposed the Allowing Steady Savings by Eliminating Tests (ASSET) Act, which would eliminate asset limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. This legislation would also substantially increase the asset limits for those on SSI. To punish people with disabilities and their families for saving money, particularly in a time like the present, is cruel. Including the language of the ASSET Act in future coronavirus relief proposals would be essential to helping vulnerable people endure this tumultuous period.
Support for the direct care workforce and home- and community-based services
Given the large number of people with disabilities and families who depend on the direct support workforce for assistance in everyday life, COVID-19 has definitely affected people with significant disabilities. It has highlighted the urgent need for additional support for these frontline workers, who are primarily immigrants and women. In response, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) have introduced legislation, the Coronavirus Relief for Seniors and People with Disabilities Act of 2020, which would bolster community-based services, including the direct support and home health workforce for the disability and aging communities. As hospitals continue to be overrun and short-staffed—and in order to prevent an increase in the institutionalization of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses—there must be significant investment in the domestic workforce.
Elimination of increased continuing disability reviews
Back in January, more than 170,000 comments were submitted to the U.S. Social Security Administration in response to a proposed rule to adjust how continuing disability reviews (CDRs) were performed and to increase the frequency of those reviews. The intention of this rule, as stated in the text, was to identify “medical improvement” as soon as possible and remove people from the rolls. Sens. Brown and Casey submitted a letter to push back against Social Security’s ramping up of draconian continuing disability reviews. The Trump administration recently agreed to temporarily suspend CDRs, but this suspension should be made permanent.
Elimination of work requirements
While much has been done to fast-track individuals’ access to Medicaid during the pandemic, something that has seen little attention at all is Trump administration’s advocacy for work requirements. In a time of intense physical distancing, the administration has not suspended or eliminated Medicaid work requirements for people with disabilities and their families. Removing vulnerable communities’ access to health care during a pandemic and as the economy spirals into chaos will not help the already tenuous relationship between health and economics. Tying people’s health care to their ability to hold a job in the time of a recession is illogical. In order to help people with disabilities, their families, and communities as they struggle to respond, Congress and the Trump administration should eliminate these requirements immediately.
Enactment of the Defense Production Act
There is currently a dangerous shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment available for people with disabilities and for those who provide care for them. Trump has yet to fully engage the Defense Production Act to force private industry to mass produce the resources that are so desperately needed. Congress is weighing in, with legislation introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) that would expedite production of this equipment immediately and ensure it gets to those who need it as soon as possible.
Accessible voting options
Given the ongoing primaries and upcoming federal election, there has been a significant push to move to a vote-by-mail system. While vote-by-mail would work for many voters, it would not be ideal for certain people in the disability community. For example, it may not work for individuals who are Blind or individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. There must be a variety of voting options, even during the coronavirus pandemic, to ensure people with disabilities can access the bedrock of our democracy. Future funding packages for the coronavirus response could include additional funding to support accessibility provisions for the multitude of voter registration and voting options for the disability community, including but not limited to same-day registration, early voting, and on-site voting. The recent House bill contained language focused on ensuring that absentee ballots and voting materials be made accessible in such a way to ensure that people with disabilities can vote privately and independently. Additionally, voter registration can be managed online or via phone, and provisions exist in the legislation to ensure that it be made available and accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Civil rights enforcement
Congress must increase funding to shore up civil rights enforcement for the disability community. In the education space, the Trump administration and Republican leadership in the Senate made a strong push toward waiving disability civil rights protections on the grounds of the urgency and unusual circumstances presented by the coronavirus. For example, current legislation would allow Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos the authority to suggest rules and regulations that should be waived. This is a pointed attack on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Rehabilitation Act. These laws provide supports and services to students with disabilities to ensure their access to education. Instead of proposing increased funding to support local education agencies to provide children with disabilities with equal access to education, these policymakers are seeking to waive these students’ civil rights to education altogether. Some flexibility is needed in these times, but overturning 40 years of civil rights is not the right path forward.
The federal government is not acting alone in its attacks on disability rights. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recommended that employers be given increased information and permission to ask employees health-related questions. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), individual rights tied to disclosure are to not to be infringed upon. Future legislation and guidance should continue to enforce this, given that the long-term impact of the coronavirus may still be unknown. Considering that the ADA protects people with a “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment,” one could imagine a case being made to deny jobs to those who have or have had a record of the virus. Reps. Katie Porter (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) sent a letter to the U.S Chamber of Commerce that doubles down on the importance of enforcement tied to the ADA’s employment and accessibility protections. Instead, increased funding to support small businesses in providing reasonable accommodations to staff or to the Job Accommodation Network or other federal resources that support employment for people with disabilities could go a long way to increasing workplace accessibility now and in the future.
Given the vulnerable status of the disability community both in terms of health and economic status, Congress has an opportunity to propose innovative solutions that would not just provide lifesaving supports but also help flatten the curve. In alignment with the history of disability policy, this would benefit everyone—not just people with disabilities. There are several promising pieces of legislation that could be incorporated into the fourth legislative package to ensure that people with disabilities and their families—those with the highest risk of being affected—are not left behind.
Rebecca Cokley is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.