Commentary Human Rights

What People With Disabilities Should Expect From the New Congress

Robyn Powell

Republicans in recent years have threatened nearly every facet of the lives of people with disabilities. Will that change with Democrats in control of the House?

Earlier this month, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a decade. Now, people with disabilities are wondering what this shift in control means for them.

Newly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) opened the 116th Congress by commending its historic diversity and promising constituents a “Congress that delivers results for the people, opening up opportunity and lifting up their lives.” Certainly, this pledge must include people with disabilities.

One in four adults—26 percent—in the United States have some kind of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability transcends race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and yes, political affiliation.

It is not surprising, then, that both parties have historically supported disability rights. Indeed, many of the major federal disability rights laws—including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990—were passed with significant bipartisan support and signed into law by Republican presidents.

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In fact, during her remarks, Pelosi honored President George H.W. Bush, noting one of “his great achievements [was] working with both Democrats and Republicans to write the Americans with Disabilities Act into the laws of our land.”

“In 2010, we marked the 20th anniversary of the Act by making it possible for our colleagues with disabilities to preside over the House. In that same spirit of equality and justice, let me announce that, this afternoon, the first Speaker Pro Tempore of the 116th Congress will be: Congressman Jim Langevin of Rhode Island,” Pelosi continued.

Pelosi’s comments referred to renovations the House Speaker’s platform underwent in 2010 to make it wheelchair accessible. These modifications allowed Rep. Langevin (D-RI), a wheelchair user, to preside over the House.

Although some disability advocates lauded Pelosi’s choice of Langevin as the first speaker pro tempore of the new Congress and her brief mention of the ADA, others were disappointed that she did not commit to protecting the rights of people with disabilities. This is especially dire given the increasing hostility of the GOP toward people with disabilities. From health care to education, from immigration to housing, the GOP under Trump’s leadership has threatened nearly every facet of the lives of people with disabilities.

Speaker Pelosi “made no commitment to protect the ADA, which was threatened just last year when a dozen Democrats voted to undermine the civil rights of people with disabilities by passing the ADA Education and Reform Act in the House,” ADAPT, a national grassroots group of disability rights activists, said in a statement.

“It is unclear whether her failure to promise to protect our rights under the ADA was just an oversight or, in fact, a signal that Democrats may caucus with Republicans to pass a bill that would significantly weaken or repeal the ADA during this Congress,” ADAPT continued.

As ADAPT noted, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the ADA Education and Reform Act (HR 620) last February. Disability rights advocates contended that HR 620 would have dramatically weakened their rights under the ADA by curtailing enforcement of accessibility violations by public establishments. The 225-192 vote was primarily along party lines, with only 19 Republicans opposed to the bill. Notably, twelve Democrats voted in support, including six from California. All of those Democrats are still in office.

HR 620 ultimately died in the Senate after nearly all Democrats, under the leadership of Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), vowed to block a vote on the bill. Duckworth is a disabled veteran and wheelchair user.

Nonetheless, similar “notification bills” have been introduced in Congress throughout the years, and it is entirely possible something akin will again be proposed—making it all the more important for Democrats, as a party, to explicitly condemn legislation that would threaten the rights of people with disabilities.

ADAPT also expressed concern that Pelosi did not mention the Disability Integration Act (DIA) in her remarks. The DIA is bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would mandate home- and community-based services as a civil right. Such legislation is intended to allow more people with disabilities to live in the community rather than in institutions.

“Many in the Disability Community hope this was simply an oversight, pointing out that last summer, then-Minority Leader Pelosi stood before a crowd of over one thousand Disability Rights activists and advocates at the National Council for Independent Living Rally on the Hill and promised to do everything in her power to pass DIA. Still, this omission is a grave misstep for the newly minted Speaker,” ADAPT said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) will re-introduce the DIA in Congress on Tuesday. ADAPT is holding a ceremony to celebrate this important event. It is now up to the Democrats to wholeheartedly throw their support behind this bill.

Protecting the ADA and passing the DIA are only two of numerous actions Congress must take to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities.

The Democrats have already signaled that they will work to circumvent any attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Throughout Trump’s presidency, disability rights activists have fought to stop the GOP’s repeated efforts to dismantle the ACA, including with multiple arrests both at the Capitol and in local offices. For people with disabilities, overturning the ACA would mean that health insurers could once again deny them coverage because of their preexisting conditions. It would also lead to draconian cuts to Medicaid, threatening home- and community-based supports that enable many people with disabilities to live and work.

As the highly anticipated 2020 general election draws near, Democrats must also pledge to ensure that people with disabilities have access to polling places. Notably, an October study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found nearly two-thirds of the 137 polling places inspected on Election Day 2016 had at least one barrier to people with disabilities. That year, 62.7 million eligible voters either were living with a disability or had a household member with one, according to researchers at Rutgers University. In other words, more than 25 percent of the total electorate has a personal connection to disability.

It is abundantly clear that the Democrats have a lot of work to do to clean up two years of incessant attacks on disability rights by the Trump administration and the GOP writ large. Whether the new Congress is up to the challenge remains to be seen—but people with disabilities will undoubtedly hold them accountable.

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