Commentary Politics

Progressives Court the Disability Community While Republicans Make Plans to Send It to the Poor House

Rebecca Cokley

By standing in the way of progress, Republicans are showing they don’t understand the lived experience of disabled people and their families, and don’t understand that their voices are required at any policy table.

For decades, disability advocates have been referred to as the “hidden army” of the civil rights community.

Although the disability community has often found itself neglected as politicians rattle off the constituencies they care about—we call this ABD for “all but disability”—a growing shift on the progressive side of the aisle has started to take shape, resulting in a more inclusive table being set as policy agendas are decided. This is thanks in large part to the leadership of ADAPT and other disability activists who worked to preserve disability rights in the Affordable Care Act.

At the same time, we are seeing the GOP move in the other direction, away from what people with disabilities need to live and thrive in society. President Trump’s budget is just the latest example of that. If enacted, these policy decisions will have a devastating long-term impact on the one-in-three families that include people with disabilities, a category that encompassed one in every four adults.

But first, the good news: Legislators, including Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sens. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), made history with their inclusion of “long-term services and supports” provisions in their Medicare for All proposals. Long-term services and supports, which were also a significant feature in the Center for American Progress’ Medicare Extra for All proposal, ensure that people with disabilities can access what they need to live in the community. As proposed, they would be integrated into the mainstream health-care system, not included as a segregated system like Medicaid currently does. (I work for the Center for American Progress as the director of the Disability Justice Initiative, though I was not involved in the drafting of the Medicare Extra for All proposal.)

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On the democracy front, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) introduced HR 1, the For the People Act, a clarion call to expand democracy. With the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reporting significant access issues at polling places around the country, this legislation would establish automatic voter registration and increase funding for accessible registration materials and training of poll workers to ensure the rights of voters with disabilities are upheld.

Meanwhile, the civil rights of parents with disabilities take center stage with the Child Care for Working Families Act introduced last month by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). This legislation acknowledges that while we know child care is inaccessible and unaffordable for the average family, the impact is exponentially greater for families that include parents or children with disabilities. Knowing the disproportionate levels of poverty faced by the disability community, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Reps. DeLauro and Suzan DelBene (D-WA) introduced the American Family Act of 2019, which could result in more than 4 million children escaping poverty.

Introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act would stop the Department of Labor from issuing 14(c) certificates, which have allowed businesses to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage—a loophole from the Fair Labor Standards Act that the disability community has wanted remedied for decades. Additionally, this legislation provides a six-year transition for workers currently enrolled, as well as funding and technical assistance to help the employers offer competitive wages and move to integrated employment.

Historically, disability policy has been an issue that has seen bipartisan support, although that has waned in recent years. The likelihood of these bills becoming law under the current Congress remains to be seen, but they will undoubtedly remain top priorities for the Democratic caucus until the necessary majority is gained in the Senate. While the Democrats are introducing policies that address the issues of the disability community, the Republicans are clearly demonstrating with their budget that they would like to halt the community’s gains.

By standing in the way of progress, Republicans are showing they don’t understand the lived experience of disabled people and their families, and don’t understand that their voices are required at any policy table. The following is just a sampling of the cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

The administration’s budget includes flat funding for Part B (K-12) and Part C (early childhood) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This is the legislation that governs access to the public education system for students with disabilities. While these line items were not cut, they weren’t increased either: this means the dollars spent per student will decrease as more students get access to diagnoses that require services.

President Trump claimed a victory at the state of the union, citing significant gains in disability employment that were later shown to be inaccurate. On top of that, his budget eliminates funding for supported employment—a clear indication of the president’s hypocrisy. These are supports and services provided by agencies and community-based organizations to help people with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and brain injuries find and maintain employment. Programs like this are increasingly important as progress is made to help transition individuals in segregated employment settings for subminimum wage into competitive integrated employment, as per the promising provisions of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Slashing funding for these programs will have a long-term impact on the community.

The Trump budget also slashes supports for the disability community at the Department of Health and Human Services. It zeroes out the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, which provides research, training, and assistance to help people with disabilities achieve “full inclusion and integration into society.” Additionally, in eliminating the Social Services Block grant, the budget cuts funding to Meals on Wheels, a vital program to elderly and disabled individuals. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is also zeroed out, which, frankly, keeps the lights and heat on for low-income individuals.

This budget literally turns the lights out for people and takes the food out of their hands.

And it adds work requirements to Medicaid. Definitions of who can get a waiver while maintaining their health care are extremely narrow. Undoubtedly, this will affect folks who may have recurring chronic illnesses, like Crohn’s disease or lupus, or mental illness. Furthermore, individuals who are actively looking for work, or only able to find part-time jobs, could still be affected and lose coverage. Burdensome and inaccessible enrollment systems can often make it difficult for folks to even obtain an exemption.

Paul Ryan may be gone as House speaker, but his long-term love, block grants, are back. Block granting Medicaid would limit spending on health care for low-income people, who are disproportionately people with disabilities. Additionally, states could make it harder to access coverage, in order to keep the funding for other purposes.

And building off of previous rumor campaigns, the administration is now targeting the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, by proposing a rule to increase social media monitoring to catch those defrauding the system. A person could have their benefits revoked for carrying groceries, for playing with a child, for doing anything the administration assumes is inappropriate. The reality is the program is not full of waste and abuse, and a robust economy has led to a steady decrease in claims. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to qualify for SSDI, and thousands of applicants die every year while traversing the bureaucracy.

You can tell the greatness of a nation by how it treats the folks most marginalized. While it may have taken awhile, progressives are listening and working to center the voices of the disability community at decision-making tables, whereas conservatives clearly are looking to send them to the poor house. Thankfully, advocates will not back down from this fight, nor any future fight, as history has shown.

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