Clinton Is Thinking Big on Disability

Hillary Clinton supporters often refer to her approach to social change as pragmatic. She is about small, practical and incremental policy changes and less about changing hearts and minds.
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Hillary Clinton supporters often refer to her approach to social change as pragmatic. She is about small, practical and incremental policy changes and less about changing hearts and minds. Both supporters and critics see this as a critical difference between Clinton and her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders.

Clinton's approach also defined her position on disability. Earlier this year, Clinton made autism a campaign issue - an issue that is rarely brought up in political campaigns. Nonetheless, hers wasn't an impassioned call to end discrimination or to solve the socioeconomic problems facing Americans with disabilities. Rather, Clinton focused on improving early autism screening, emphasizing cure and treatment.

As I wrote then in the Huffington Post, that wasn't thinking big about making lives better for people with disabilities. But on Monday, Clinton took a major step forward.

She said that "When it comes to jobs, we've got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage...right now there is a tiered wage when it comes to facilities that do provide opportunities but not at a self-sufficient wage that enables people to gain a degree of independence as far as they can go." Clinton is alluding to a broader structural and attitudinal problem in American society when it comes to disability as a labor market barrier.

In 2014, the employment rate among Americans with disabilities was 17 percent, lower than it was before the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The employment rate among people with disabilities is about three to four times lower than it is for women, African Americans, and Hispanics. My research with Michelle Maroto found that even when people with disabilities do work, they earn about $12,000-$14,000 less than a similar worker without a disability. Part of the problem is that workers with disabilities are often clustered or "ghettoized" into certain occupations like food preparation and service occupations. The annual average earnings for this occupation in 2011 was $18,168, less than half the average across occupations and the lowest of all major occupations.

Maroto and I also found considerable diversity in employment and earnings by type of disability. People with hearing and vision difficulties have by far the highest employment rates (about 60 and 50 percent respectively) while people with cognitive difficulties are at 31 percent and those with mobility and self-care difficulties have the lowest employment at about 8 percent. People with multiple and cognitive disabilities are much more likely to be occupationally ghettoized.

Workplace stratification has become an important part of this campaign season. Sanders has repeatedly called for an end to discrimination based on disability stating on his website that "In the year 2016, it is unacceptable that over 80 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed. We need to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and vocational education programs."

Even GOP candidate John Kasich spoke out against labor market segregation. Last December, Kasich told a town hall audience that disabled people shouldn't be put in a setting "just because we've done it for the last 50 years ... People who have severe disabilities can work in hospitals and grocery stores and libraries."

Clinton is trying to connect the broader issue of employment and earnings inequities to the persistent inequality Americans with disabilities still face despite decades of policies meant to end it. She is tapping into a community, a political constituency, often ignored in the fight against labor market segregation and economic inequality. People with disabilities are among the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged groups in America. Eliminating the economic barriers they face requires an approach that addresses workplace practices as well as prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes about disability.

As many Democrats are coming to terms with the fact that Clinton isn't the presumptive nominee, the Sanders campaign may have forced Clinton to "think big" about issues like disability.

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