As seven presidential candidates gathered for the final Democratic primary debate of 2019, moderator Tim Alberta of Politico posed a question: As president, what steps would you take to help people with disabilities become more integrated into their communities?
That night, disability rights — a topic that usually only comes up when candidates answer health care questions — became the focal point of the discussion as the candidates vied to highlight their plans for a more accessible and inclusive America.
For the 61 million Americans living with disabilities, that primary debate helped further legitimize disability rights as an essential issue that politicians can’t afford to ignore.
Disabled people make up nearly a quarter of the adult U.S. population, and with turnout surging in 2018, they have quickly become an indispensable constituency. In many battleground states, voters with disabilities have the ability to sway elections.
“I don’t think there’s a single issue that doesn’t disproportionately impact the disability community,” said Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning public policy research and advocacy institute.
Though political candidates and lawmakers have largely neglected disability issues in the past, Cokley said she is finally seeing more politicians actively engaging with the community, particularly as disabled people continue to lead efforts within the progressive movement, including the fight to save the Affordable Care Act in 2017.
“I think we’ve clearly demonstrated that we aren’t willing to take a backseat to policies or nominations, which can have a significant and long-lasting impact on our lives,” Cokley said.
Indeed, disability rights have seen an unprecedented level of visibility on the political stage during the 2020 election. Almost every major Democratic presidential candidate released a disability rights platform during the primaries, starting with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who focused on issues such as disability employment, accessible transportation and “Medicare for All.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) became the first 2020 presidential candidate to mention the disability community during a primary debate, saying in October that “any American with disabilities knows just how hard it is to make it and get by in this country.” Other candidates held Twitter town halls to answer questions from the disability community, including former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who released comprehensive plans.
Before too long, the message became clear for candidates: If you weren’t engaging with the disability community, you were doing it wrong.
And so it was initially disappointing for many disabled people when the only major candidate without a disability plan started to overwhelmingly win primaries: Joe Biden.
People with disabilities spent more than a year urging the former vice president to release a plan addressing their concerns and created the hashtag #AccessToJoe in an attempt to get his attention. In that time, Biden was criticized after he stroked a disabled college student’s face at a New Hampshire event and for saying at a town hall that a stutter — which Biden has had since childhood — is the only disability that still gets made fun of. His campaign insisted a policy plan was on its way.
Then, in late May, Biden released his long-awaited platform on protecting the rights of Americans with disabilities during a briefing featuring leading disability advocates. It included a plan specifically focused on supporting disabled people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For me, it all comes down to a simple truth: everyone is entitled to a life of dignity and opportunity. That’s my north star,” Biden wrote in a Medium post at the time. “That’s why, from the beginning, I’ve made building a more inclusive and more resilient middle class the cornerstone of my campaign. And this time, we’re going to make sure everyone comes along.”
Reactions from the disability community were mostly positive, lauding Biden for including many crucial elements of other candidates’ plans and for promising to recruit disabled people to serve in leadership roles in his administration.
“The disability community should be commended for their advocacy to promote the release of this plan. Their voices were clearly heard by the campaign that this is a priority and not an afterthought,” Cokley said in a statement at the time, praising Biden’s focus on accessible child care, fair housing policies and a proposed expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
However, some argued the plan wasn’t innovative or expansive enough. Disability activist Matthew Cortland, for example, pointed out that Biden’s COVID-19 plan would ensure that care attendants would be provided with personal protective equipment, but not their clients.
Since then, Biden has hired a disability engagement director, Warren campaign alumna Molly Doris-Pierce, and on Tuesday he announced an economic plan that would expand access to care for elderly and disabled Americans in their homes and communities rather than in institutional care facilities. He is slated to launch a coalition of supporters with disabilities on Sunday, the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
He has also participated in other disability events, including a bipartisan summit on the disability vote. (Members of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign spoke at the event as well.)
“Everyone should be able to live independently in their chosen communities — to enrich our society with their talents and contributions,” Biden said in a video statement at the summit. “That means aggressively enforcing the civil rights of people with disabilities and safeguarding against any efforts to weaken the ADA.”
He went on to mention his support for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which banned disability discrimination in federal programs, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
“It was an enormous step forward,” Biden said of the ADA. “It demonstrated that we could accomplish big things, that Democrats and Republicans could work together to make life better for millions of Americans. Thirty years on, the work of full participation isn’t finished yet.”
His comments — and acknowledgment of the work disability activists had been doing for decades — marked a major shift in Biden’s strategy with disabled voters, many of whom had previously felt ignored by him.
“I thank everyone in the disabilities community for your advocacy and your leadership over so many years to push the nation — our nation — to a more equitable society,” Biden said. “That’s what we must be: a more equitable society.”
With just over three months to go until the general election, Biden leads Trump by about 8 percentage points in an aggregate of national polls. Trump’s administration has pushed ableist policies across education, health care and immigration — to name just a few issues — that have hurt thousands of people with disabilities.
Even many disabled voters who would have preferred to have Warren or Castro at the top of the ticket note that electing Biden may be the only way to avoid a second Trump term, which would most likely lead to more attempts to gut disability rights. (It’s worth noting that many barriers continue to hinder the disability vote, including inaccessible polling stations and voter ID laws.)
And the former vice president does seem to understand that people with disabilities are affected by every major political issue, including health care, education and housing — a low standard for a worthy presidential nominee but one that’s higher than Trump has met.
Many disability advocates said they’re “optimistic” about Biden’s recent engagement with the community. But they stressed that in order to receive enthusiastic support from disabled voters, Biden must turn his words and proposals into action.
Who Biden picks as his running mate could also help sway the disability vote. He has committed to choosing a woman for vice president as early as next month, and the list of potential veeps includes Warren, Harris and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.).
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) — a combat veteran, disabled woman of color and the first senator to give birth while in office — has also emerged as a possible contender for the role. Having her on the ticket would be historic. Duckworth helped stop a 2018 House bill that would have weakened the ADA. She also reviewed — and gave feedback on — Biden’s disability platform before it was released.
“I made several changes to the platform, which the Biden camp agreed to,” she told HuffPost. “I know it took them a little time to get up, but they were being very methodological and responsive.”
What’s most important is not for politicians to always get things right on disability issues, but to make sure that disabled people have leadership roles and help shape the policies that directly affect their lives, said Andrew Pulrang, co-founder of #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan campaign bringing visibility to issues that affect the disability community.
“I think we are beginning to flex our potential political power in ways we haven’t before,” Pulrang said. “We are powerful enough now, when sufficiently motivated or provoked, to cause actual political problems for any given elected official or candidate.”