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Analysis Human Rights

Elizabeth Warren Just Proved She’s Serious About Disability Rights

Robyn Powell

People with disabilities are praising Warren’s plan for being comprehensive, inclusive of the perspectives of people with disabilities, and intersectional.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on Thursday released a far-reaching policy plan aimed at advancing the rights of people with disabilities as part of her candidacy to become the Democratic nominee ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

People with disabilities are praising Warren’s plan for being comprehensive, inclusive of the perspectives of people with disabilities, and intersectional, recognizing that many disabled people are members of multiple historically marginalized communities. And, above all, many see Warren’s plan as another sign that candidates finally recognize the importance of the disability vote.

Warren’s proposal, titled “Protecting the Rights and Equality of People With Disabilities,” tackles an array of issues facing people with disabilities, such as economic security, civil rights, climate change, health care, voting, criminal justice, housing, and education.

“Though we have made significant progress for the 61 million Americans living with disabilities, we have a lot of ground left to cover,” Warren’s plan reads. “People with disabilities are still fighting for economic security, equal opportunity, and inclusion – and they are not fighting alone. As President, I will work in partnership with the disability community to combat ableism.”

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Warren is one of several Democratic candidates who have unveiled disability policy proposals, including former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (who dropped out of the race Thursday morning), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) (who dropped out of the race in December).

Other candidates, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), former Vice President Joe Biden, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and author Marianne Williamson, include disability rights sections on their websites and have mentioned people with disabilities to varying degrees in their other policy plans. No GOP candidate has similar plans listed on their websites.

Warren’s plan suggests reforms to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programs. In addition to expanding benefit amounts, she wants to eliminate current asset limits that restrict what disabled people can save, increase income limits so that people with disabilities can earn more money without losing their benefits, and get rid of the 24-month waiting period for SSDI recipients to receive Medicare. Warren also vows to repeal antiquated rules that prevent people with disabilities from marrying because they will lose SSI.

Warren also wants to reform the criminal justice system, which incarcerates people with disabilities at disproportionately high rates, also putting them, especially disabled people of color, at substantial risk of police brutality. Her administration, she says, will implement a policy related to use-of-force that incorporates evidence-based practices that protect people with disabilities, stop criminalizing homelessness, poverty, and mental health crises, address current policies that disproportionately harm people with disabilities in prison, such as solitary confinement, and ensure that courtrooms are fully accessible.

Like other candidates, Warren’s plan includes proposals to increase funding for students with disabilities, expand access to home- and community-based supports that allow people with disabilities to live at home and receive necessary services, and ensure disabled people can access voting polls.

She also addresses health care through her Medicare for All plan, including repealing the Trump administration’s work requirement rules. And, like all Democratic candidates, she promises to eliminate the subminimum wage that allows people with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage.

The proposal also aims to combat discrimination in the workforce through increased enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by the federal government and grow the number of federal employees with disabilities to 14 percent.

Under the Trump administration, immigrants, including disabled immigrants, have experienced constant attacks, which Warren says she will fix. For example, the Trump administration has refused medical care in detention facilities to people with disabilities and expanded the definition of “public charge” to justify denying green cards to disabled immigrants. The Democratic candidate says her proposed Office of New Americans will support immigrants, including those with disabilities, and she will repeal Trump’s dangerous policies.

Other areas addressed in Warren’s disability policy proposal include protections for parents with disabilities, increased accessible and affordable housing, and requirements that advances in technology consider the needs of people with disabilities.

While people with disabilities are praising Warren’s plan for its breadth, most are particularly happy to learn that her campaign consulted disabled people when developing the plan. On Thursday, Warren recognized on Twitter some of the people who assisted with the plan, like Rebecca Cokley, Vilissa Thompson, Matthew Cortland, Julia Bascom, and Ari Ne’eman.

Around 1 in 4 adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2016, for example, 62.7 million eligible voters either were living with a disability or had a household member with one, according to researchers at Rutgers University.

Still, until now, politicians have largely overlooked people with disabilities as a crucial voting bloc. However, as candidates continue to release comprehensive disability policy plans, hire disabled staff, and directly engage with the disability community, some believe the tides may finally be shifting.

During the December Democratic debate, history was made when billionaire Tom Steyer was asked a question about integrating people with disabilities into their communities and the workforce, marking the first time a candidate was ever asked about their proposals for people with disabilities.

After Steyer largely avoided directly answering the question, Yang, who has an autistic son, talked about unemployment of people with disabilities and the importance of innovation. His answer was met with criticism from some people with disabilities for his repeated use of the term “special needs,” noting that the phrase is outdated and offensive to many.

Warren also was allowed to respond, and discussed her experience as a special education teacher and the need to increase funding for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the federal special education law, as well as housing and employment. Warren was criticized, however, for referring to disabled people as “the least of thy brethren,” which some felt suggested people with disabilities were inferior to nondisabled people. (Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) also attempted to respond to the question about people with disabilities but was not given a chance.)

Securing the votes of people with disabilities requires detailed policy plans that are drafted alongside people with disabilities, hiring disabled staff at all levels, and ensuring that all campaign events are fully accessible to people with a range of disabilities. Directly including people with disabilities like Warren did to present such a comprehensive plan is aligned with the disability community’s mantra: “Nothing about us, without us.”

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