By Arianna Khan, National Disability Institute Intern and First-Year Fellow, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, Dartmouth College
Today marks the 29th anniversary of the signing into law of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As we commemorate the passage of this historic piece of legislation, millions of people with disabilities and their allies across the country are not only looking back to celebrate past accomplishments, but forward as well to 2020. With such a crowded Democratic primary field vying to become our next President, it is important to understand what candidates’ views are to advance the goals of the ADA for greater community participation and well-being for all Americans with disabilities.
Prior to the ADA anniversary, National Disability Institute (NDI) felt it would be fitting to reach out to the 25 Democratic presidential candidates for more information on their policy agenda for people with disabilities, if elected. Each candidate was asked the same three questions about their policy ideas to improve access to healthcare, create greater economic stability and security and enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act to result in greater financial freedom and independence for Americans with disabilities.
Whether a Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative, aging Baby Boomer, Generation X and Y, or Millennial, there are more than 50 million Americans with disabilities. Each of us has a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker who has a disability and, as disability is a natural part of the human experience, we also have the potential for incurring a disability as we age. Disability issues impact – either directly or indirectly – all Americans and warrant the attention of candidates for President of the United States.
The three questions we asked of each candidate were:
- People with disabilities are twice as likely to be living in poverty and four times as likely to be unemployed as the general U.S. population. Has your office or campaign yet put out a policy agenda that would impact the financial stability and security of people with disabilities?
- During the current presidential administration, enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act has received limited attention. If you were to become president, what would you do to revitalize the efforts of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to enforce the law?
- More than one-third of the U.S. population has a disability or chronic mental health condition. The number one reason that families declare bankruptcy is healthcare costs that they cannot cover. There are many solutions being proposed to improve access to healthcare for all Americans, including those with disabilities. Some of those proposals do not protect people with pre-existing conditions, and others would put limits on access to certain types of drugs and mental health counseling because of cost. How will your healthcare proposal be responsive to the needs of Americans with disabilities?
We contacted campaigns by any means available, whether phone, email or online form, and followed up with them to encourage a response. Of the 25 candidates contacted, seven responded: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Sestak, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.
The first question asked about candidates’ policies that impact the financial stability of people with disabilities. In response, candidates voiced a desire to transition from subminimum wage work to competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. Gillibrand wrote, “I believe that equal pay is fundamental to this country and an important step toward the broader goal of encouraging self-sufficiency.” Both Harris and Williamson voiced similar opinions. O’Rourke encouraged Congress to pass the ABLE Age Adjustment Act to increase the age threshold for ABLE account eligibility to benefit even more Americans with disabilities.
The second question discussed the Trump administration’s limited efforts of enforcement of the ADA and asked how candidates would make enforcement a priority if elected. O’Rourke said, “As the 29th anniversary of the ADA approaches, we must reaffirm our nation’s commitment to inclusion, equality, and the elimination of barriers to public life and community integration for all Americans with disabilities,” and promised to protect the freedom from institutionalization guaranteed by the Olmstead decision. Harris planned to double the size of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, while Sestak would order the DOJ to work with states and municipalities to assist in enforcement efforts.
Finally, the third question asked how candidates’ healthcare plans would be responsive to the needs of the disability community. The candidates all seemed to concur that healthcare should be a right, not a privilege, though they differ on how to achieve that goal. Harris supports Medicare for All which calls for the abolition of private health insurance and O’Rourke and Sestak support Medicare for America, a public option. They each prioritized mental health, as did Williamson with her comment, “Mental health care should be treated on par with physical health care.”
So what did we learn? The answers provided by the seven candidates were thoughtful, sensitive and even provocative. The fact that only seven candidates responded indicates that we need to push for more attention to and consideration of the disability community.
To the 19 candidates who did not respond, it isn’t too late. Address the disability community. Define your values and character. Share your platform and how your administration will support the needs of people with disabilities.
And to all people with disabilities and to all voters, let’s keep the conversation going. Ask your policymakers the same three questions we asked of these candidates. Their answers may change your vote and, if elected, your access to certain unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Read the seven candidates’ entire responses.