Disability Rights Finally Got Airtime In Thursday Night’s Democratic Debate

Questions about disabled Americans have largely been absent from previous face-offs.

Disability advocates praised Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate for including a prominent question about how candidates planned to address the needs of disabled Americans should they win the White House in 2020.

Adults with disabilities are a key voting bloc that often goes unmentioned during presidential campaigns. About 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. are disabled, representing some 61 million Americans.

Among the three candidates who got a chance to respond, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s comments drew some of the most lavish praise. Noting her past work as a special education teacher, she laid out her plan to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and her support for access to housing and fair pay in the workplace.

“You’ve got to go at it at every part of what we do, because as a nation, this is truly a measure of who we are,” Warren said.

The disability community has been looking for recognition during the debate cycle while urging Democratic candidates to speak to their plans to support Americans with disabilities. Such questions are often linked to broader healthcare concerns rather than as social issues, advocates argue.

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur whose campaign is focused on addressing the upheavals that loom due to the increasing use of artificial intelligence in workplaces, spoke about his own family when asked to outline steps the government could take to support young people with disabilities.

“To me, special needs is the new normal in this country,” Yang said, mentioning his son, who has autism. “Special needs children are going to become special needs adults... We have to be able to say to our kids… that you have intrinsic value because you are an American and you are a human being.”

Some people noted that Yang’s use of the phrase “special needs” didn’t fall in line with terminology preferred by disabled Americans. But others cheered Yang for his comments.

“The disability question tonight was HUGE,” Emily Ladau, a disability advocate and the editor-in-chief of Rooted in Rights, wrote on Twitter. “But I’m weary of the idea that people are doing things *for* us, as though we aren’t voters ourselves.”

The question was initially posed to billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer, who responded by decrying President Donald Trump’s tax breaks for rich Americans and corporations. Steyer said he would help the community through efforts to redistribute “focus and money.”

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