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Commentary Human Rights

The Candidates’ Silence on Disability Rights During the Debates Is Nothing New

Robyn Powell

It is just one of many ways 2020 Democratic candidates have disregarded disability issues. 

Over two nights of debates, not a single Democratic presidential hopeful explicitly mentioned a traditionally overlooked voting bloc: people with disabilities. This failure to recognize disabled people is just one of the many ways 2020 candidates have disregarded disability issues.

In 2016, 35.4 million disabled people—nearly one-sixth of the total electorate—were eligible to vote, according to researchers at Rutgers University. That number increased to 62.7 million eligible voters when it included those who live with disabled people.

Nonetheless, voter turnout is consistently low for disabled people: During the 2016 election, voter turnout among registered voters was six percentage points lower for disabled people than for nondisabled people.

Low turnout may be a result, in part, of inaccessibility. During the 2016 election, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 60 percent of 178 investigated polling places had at least one accessibility barrier. Such barriers included inadequate parking, lack of signs indicating accessible paths, and steep ramps. The same study found that nearly two-thirds of polling places that purported to offer an accessible voting system were set up in ways that could impede casting a private and independent vote.

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But lack of candidate engagement is also a factor in low turnout. In fact, one-fifth of disabled people cited not liking the candidates or campaign issues as a reason for not voting in 2016.

With that in mind, many disabled people spent the past two nights watching the Democratic debates eager to see if candidates would finally remember us. Unfortunately, as several people discussed on Twitter using the hashtag #CripTheVote, that did not happen.

As one advocate tweeted, “If the debates are any indication, the [one] thing that no Presidential candidate will ever be accused of is pandering to the disability community for votes. Disabled people constitute 20% of the population. Yet, time and again, we are ignored. #CripTheVote”

Although candidates were not explicitly asked any questions about disabled people, they had several chances to mention us.

For example, both nights included robust discussions about health-care policy, a significant issue for people with disabilities. With growing support from many Democratic presidential primary candidates for Medicare for All or some type of government-run, universal insurance, there was ample opportunity for candidates to discuss how these policies affect disabled people—or adequately support them. In part because of steadfast advocacy by disability activists, many proposed Medicare for All policies, including that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), now address a major concern of disabled people: access to long-term services and supports.

Another area of importance is income inequality. Poverty is a persistent problem for the disability community: Nearly 27 percent of people with disabilities live below the federal poverty level. In addition, disabled people continue to struggle to find work. In 2018, only 19 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 66 percent of people without disabilities.

During both debates, candidates offered their support for raising the minimum wage. Although that is certainly vital, it is equally important to recognize that some people with disabilities earn as little as 22 cents an hour in “sheltered workshops”—and it’s completely legal. Passed more than 80 years ago, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay disabled employees a subminimum wage simply by obtaining a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Several efforts are underway to end sheltered workshops and subminimum wages, including the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA); its co-sponsors in the Senate and House include candidates Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Seth Moulton (D-MA), and Tim Ryan (D-OH). Some other candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sanders have indicated that they oppose subminimum wages. No candidates, however, raised the issue at the debate. Given this omission, all candidates should include ending subminimum wages in their proposed policies to raise the minimum wage.

Notably, disability was raised during the debates a few times—but in a potentially harmful framework. For example, when candidates were asked about gun violence, some responded by referencing psychiatric disabilities. Conflating gun violence with mental health issues is empirically unsound and further stigmatizes people with psychiatric disabilities. Indeed, research consistently shows people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, the debates are not the only instance in which candidates have inappropriately connected gun violence and mental health care. Indeed, the websites of candidates such as Harris, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson specifically do so. Further, both Swalwell and Williamson have committed to reinstate Obama-era restrictions that unjustifiably prohibited people with psychiatric disabilities from purchasing guns.

Addressing gun violence is unquestionably important and long overdue. But candidates must propose policies that address this critical issue without scapegoating people with psychiatric disabilities.

And while nearly all candidates’ websites mention people with disabilities somewhere in their issue statements, only Sens. Sanders and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have pages dedicated to explaining their policies on disability issues. But even those are not fully accessible. On Tuesday, the day before the first debate, Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired issued a report finding that not a single candidate’s website is accessible to blind people. In addition to website accessibility, all videos from candidates should include captioning for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

Another way candidates can engage voters with disabilities is by hiring disabled staff. Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all publicly pledged to hire staff with disabilities in either their campaigns or potential administration. Buttigieg was the first candidate to hire someone with a known disability, and it is unclear if others have followed suit.

The 2020 campaign season is still in its infancy. However, this week’s debates and candidates’ overall lack of engagement with the disability community thus far indicate a continued disregard for disabled people.

While no one wants to be pandered to, disability issues should be important to all candidates given how many people are affected. For that matter, all hot topics being discussed by candidates—including health care, climate change, criminal justice, economic inequality, education, technology, immigration, and opioid use—have direct implications for people with disabilities. It is time candidates take notice.

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