More than a year after he first announced his presidential bid, former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday released two separate plans to support Americans with disabilities — one detailing his proposals for ensuring full equality for the disability community, and another focusing on supporting disabled Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
The first plan includes a wide-ranging list of issues that the presumed Democratic nominee plans to tackle as president, including recruiting disabled policymakers to play key roles in his administration, promoting inclusive education, ending abuses of power in the pharmaceutical industry, expanding access to equal employment opportunities, protecting economic security for disabled people and providing affordable housing and accessible transportation.
“Thanks to the leadership of people with disabilities, disability advocates, and their allies, we have made progress towards the goals of this law — ‘equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency’ for people with disabilities,” reads the 18-page plan, a copy of which the campaign shared with HuffPost prior to its release. “But, there is much more work to do in order to ensure that all people with disabilities are able to participate fully in our communities and enjoy the same kinds of choices and opportunities that many Americans take for granted.”
In the plan, titled “The Biden Plan For Full Participation And Equality For People With Disabilities,” the former vice president says his administration would continue to build on the Affordable Care Act. He promises “universal coverage” and says he would ensure that people with low incomes would be covered. He says he would increase tax credits to lower premiums and deductibles, implement a proposal created by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that makes it easier for people with large amounts of debt to obtain relief, and integrate mental health care into primary care settings.
Like many of his former Democratic rivals, Biden would fully fund and enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures disabled students the right to an accessible education. Biden’s plan also says he would recruit and retain special education teachers from marginalized backgrounds and, as Warren previously proposed, encourage schools to include the disability movement in history lessons.
The plan also touches on immigration rights, saying Biden would revoke the Trump administration’s public charge so immigrants — including those with disabilities — would not be discouraged from accessing health care or other public benefits out of fear of blocking their path to citizenship or residency.
Another section states that Biden would expand the Violence Against Women Act to apply to women and young people with disabilities, as well as end the Title IX rule that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos passed to roll back the rights of sexual assault survivors.
Other proposals include safeguarding the rights of disabled parents, expanding access to housing, increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, training law enforcement on how to interact with and protect people with disabilities, and passing the Accessible Voting Act so disabled voters can cast their ballots more easily.
“Despite decades of progress, our work to achieve full accessibility for all Americans is not done,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a statement to HuffPost. “I’m proud to see Joe Biden advance his disability rights agenda that will help break down the barriers that remain in our country for the many Americans with disabilities, and I am confident that when he is President, Joe Biden will work to make our society more inclusive and accessible for all.”
Disability rights have become a spotlight issue during the 2020 election cycle, earning significant airtime at one Democratic primary debate. Multiple candidates, including Warren, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also participated in Twitter town halls and answered questions directly submitted by people with disabilities.
Access to health care and disability rights as a whole have become even more urgent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as elderly and immunocompromised people are among those most vulnerable to the virus. When the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package was passed in late March, advocates argued that it failed to provide necessary support for Americans with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
In Biden’s plan specifically about supporting people with disabilities during the current pandemic, he notably proposes enforcing nondiscrimination laws and prohibiting “the rationing of health care that refuses or diverts hospitalization, treatment, or supplies based on a patient’s disability” — an ableist practice in the health care system that the disability community has widely condemned.
“In a time of pandemic, when people with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable to this virus, we must redouble our efforts to ensure they have the resources and the protections to support their health, well-being and independence,” Biden said in a Medium post published Thursday afternoon. “So today, in addition to a comprehensive disability policy, I’m also releasing a COVID-19 specific policy to ensure the needs of people with disabilities are being addressed during this crisis.”
Biden said he would expand access to home- and community-based services, including hiring additional caregivers. Personal care attendants would be classified as “essential workers” so they would be provided with personal protective equipment, since caregiving requires in-person contact and leaves both disabled people and caregivers at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus.
He also proposed passing an emergency 14-day paid leave for all workers, including caregivers, and eliminating the “benefit cliff” that prevents Social Security Disability Insurance recipients from earning above a certain income without losing their benefits. In addition, Biden would make it easier to receive prescribed medication through mail and expand access to Medicaid, including temporarily increasing Medicaid funding.
Disability advocates have urged Biden to release a disability platform for well over a year, going so far as to create the hashtag #AccesstoJoe in hopes of turning the former vice president’s attention toward the needs of disabled people, who make up nearly a quarter of the entire U.S. population.
During the Democratic primary race, Biden was the only leading candidate who did not reveal a specific disability platform. Disability advocates said the 900 or so words he had dedicated to “Americans With Disabilities” on his campaign website just wasn’t enough.
When asked why the candidate waited so long to release the disability plans, a campaign spokesperson said, “Joe Biden has introduced policies throughout the entirety of his campaign and incorporated the disability community key proposals on health care, education, and more.”
“The timing and order of his policies are not reflective of his unwavering commitment to Americans of all stripes,” the spokesperson told HuffPost.
The comprehensive new disability plans Biden dropped Thursday signal a more direct and engaging approach to amplifying disability rights moving forward. The spokesperson added that Biden consulted with experts in disability policy as well as advocates in the disability community to develop the plans.
Biden and his campaign introduced the plans at a disability policy briefing Thursday afternoon featuring Duckworth, Deaf actor and activist Nyle DiMarco, and world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who is a wheelchair user.
“As we recover and rebuild from this crisis, we have a once in a generation opportunity to transform our country,” Biden wrote in his Medium post. “And as we do, we must make sure that disability rights, and expanding opportunities for people with disabilities, is central to our agenda.”