Why you should care
Voters with disabilities could prove to be game changers in the 2020 election.
During one of the biggest political weekends in Iowa this election season, six presidential candidates spent nearly an hour each speaking to a crowd of about 100 voters in Cedar Rapids. But the draw wasn’t just those in the quiet Ramada Inn conference room. It was the people they represented: some 35 million eligible voters with disabilities and the people who love them — another 27 million voters with household members who have a disability, according to Rutgers University research.
Combined, this group made up almost a third of the electorate in 2016, and presidential candidates are finally adjusting to tap the unharnessed potential of this massive voting bloc. “This is the first forum of its kind that we’ve had in the entire presidential race — and I think it has taken way too long,” Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator now polling fifth in Iowa, told the 2019 Accessibility, Inclusion and Outreach Conference.
At least 10 current and former candidates for the Democratic nomination have proposed plans or policy elements geared toward people with disabilities, drawing from demands long pushed by advocates. These include promises to change rules so Social Security Disability (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients don’t lose benefits the moment household income inadvertently crosses a figure — a phenomenon known as the “benefit cliff” — and plans to eliminate laws that allow employers to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage.
It is loud and clear that we’re not a community to be ignored anymore.
Rebecca Cokley, Disability Justice Initiative, Center for American Progress
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have hired staff with disabilities to senior roles. California Sen. Kamala Harris — who dropped out of the race last week — launched a Disabilities Leadership Council for her campaign in July. These efforts came amid sustained pressure from activist-led social campaigns on Twitter, such as #CripTheVote and #SayTheWord. “It is loud and clear that we’re not a community to be ignored anymore,” says Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
Politicians have previously rarely focused on voters with disabilities, though they are what some experts call the nation’s largest minority group. In the 2008 election, only then Sen. Barack Obama had released a plan by the end of 2007, according to Cokley. Even now, some question whether they are being authentically heard … or merely pandered to. The presidential debates have yet to include a single question about disabilities. Only in October was the word “disability” first mentioned in a presidential debate — by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has since dropped out.
Candidates say they want those with disabilities to drive the conversation. “If you don’t have people who are in the disability community actively helping us define the policy, it’s like making a policy about African Americans and not having us at the table,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tells OZY, although he does not specifically name the staffers or groups he consulted with.
In some cases, candidates have been “reaching out to gatekeepers to kind of validate their policy positions and … say, ‘Is this lackadaisical policy platform good enough for you, so we can kind of say the disability community approves and push it out?’” argues Neal Carter, a disabled owner of Nu View Consulting, a progressive political consulting firm that’s not backing a candidate this cycle.
He notes that Buttigieg’s plan mentions eliminating the “benefit cliff,” but lacks details. It’s silent on the Trump administration’s obtrusive efforts to verify the disability of SSI and SSDI recipients, Carter says. While he commends Buttigieg for appointing Emily Voorde, a popular disability advocate who uses a wheelchair, to a senior role, he cautions that “hiring [people with disabilities] just to hire them is not enough.”
Candidates often aren’t aware enough to detect ableist language. None of them held Marianne Williamson — also a candidate — accountable for making comments that Carter argues were dangerous to the disability community. He points to writings and interview comments where she has questioned the validity of mental illness — characterizing depression as a “spiritual disease,” for example — and asked “why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses” in the July debate. In her book A Return to Love, Williamson suggested diseases like AIDS can be cured with prayers and that sickness is a reflection of judgment. It’s a damaging rationale, with a history Carter likens to “praying the gay away.”
When crafting plans, the contenders have experimented with different approaches. Warren and Bernie Sanders have integrated disability priorities into larger health care platforms, while Buttigieg released stand-alone disability plans. And they’re being held accountable for their choices. Tucker Cassidy, a quadriplegic and member of the Disability Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party, recalls telling former Rep. Julian Castro his website should have had a dedicated page for disability issues. When Castro said they aimed to be inclusive, Cassidy pushed back. “I can understand inclusivity, but we are the largest minority in America,” Cassidy says. “It’s not to take away steam from other minority groups that are ostracized and marginalized, but we need to also be talked about in that way.”
Since that conversation, Castro has released his own comprehensive disability plan. Former Vice President Joe Biden and other candidates have used sign-language interpreters at their rallies. Voters with disabilities will continue to scrutinize candidates’ follow-through, like whether campaign rallies and advertising are accessible or if field organizers are canvassing in assisted living homes, say activists. “People with disabilities are not born Democrats or Republicans,” says former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin from Iowa, who helped pass the Americans With Disabilities Act. They will look for “not who sympathizes with them, but who has empathy,” he adds.
Still, signs that politicians are finally taking them seriously as a voter bloc are emerging. “Maybe politicians are starting to wake up to this — that this is a voting group that could tilt it one way or the other in a [swing] state,” Harkin says.