The phrase “Everything that’s going on” has rarely been so potent.
Presidential Election results have been openly challenged in Congress. The Capitol building itself has been physically attacked by a wild but disturbingly directed mob. The Covid-19 pandemic seems to be escalating everywhere. So it may be tempting for elected officials and political strategists to set seemingly specialized concerns aside in 2021 and focus just on a few of the perceived “fundamentals” that are understood to affect “everyone,” rather than narrower “special interests.”
Disability issues in particular risk being sidelined even more than they usually are. Despite some notable recent success in bringing disability policy to the attention of politicians, disability is still widely regarded as a niche concern. Conventional wisdom might suggest that with American democracy literally teetering on the brink, matters like Social Security rules, disability rights laws, and even health care eligibility should be put not just on the back burner, but in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future.
This would be a mistake – morally, practically, and politically. Disability issues are far more important and relevant than most people realize. They also offer ground for some tentative returns to a semblance of political bipartisanship, and restoration of faith in society’s ability to do things better. Here are five reasons why disability issues shouldn’t be set aside right now.
1. The disability community is a large constituency, not a tiny special interest.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 61 million adults in the U.S. have some kind of disability – that’s 26% of the adult population, or 1 in 4 adults. 13.7% of adults have a mobility disability. 10.8% have cognitive or intellectual disabilities. 5.9% of adults have hearing impairments. And 4.6% have vision impairments. These are all minorities in the numerical sense, compared with the whole U.S. population. But they are all substantial minorities.
We should also count families and friends of disabled people too, as part of a more broadly-defined disability community or constituency. It’s a common mistake to assume that non-disabled spouses, siblings, adult children, and work and school buddies always have the same views and priorities as actual disabled people. But they are at least potential and often genuine allies on disability issues.
It’s also worth remembering that aging in particular overlaps a lot with disability. Disability becomes much more prevalent as people age, and the percentage of the population that is elderly is huge. 2 in 5 people 65 and over have a disability. The large aging population is part of what makes the disability community much larger than people tend to assume.
When we think of “disabled Americans” we need to remember that it’s more than just a few people in wheelchairs. It’s a very large and diverse community of people, who nevertheless share many common experiences of having disabilities and coping with the often difficult place disabled people occupy in society.
2. Disability cuts across our political divides like few other shared experiences.
Disability is more prevalent among some groups than others – as already noted by age – but also by race, region, and income. For instance, 16% of Native Americans and 11% of black people of working age in the U.S. have disabilities of some kind.
However, every social and demographic subgroup includes significant numbers of disabled people. Anyone can have a distinct or marginalized identity, and be disabled as well. This affects more than just statistics. It means that the disability community itself is incredibly diverse. And the experience of disability adds extra dimensions and cross-cutting perspectives to other demographic populations.
For example, disability can sometimes give otherwise privileged people a taste of discrimination, sometimes even of oppression, that their non-disabled peers may rarely experience firsthand. Meanwhile, less privileged people can be both further stigmatized and hindered by disability, while also at times provided with different paths to survival, community, and liberation through the disability community than are available to their non-disabled peers.
It’s easy and risky to overstate this potential for disability by itself to bridge great differences. Rich disabled people don’t all have an especially deep appreciation for the hardships of being poor, and white, straight disabled people aren’t automatically more understanding or sympathetic to black or LGBTQ+ people. But the common disability experience’s effect on people from vastly different backgrounds is worth watching and thinking about.
3. Disabled voters are not strongly locked in with any one political party or ideology.
Disability activism has historically been bipartisan. It has become less so as American politics have become more polarized in recent years. But the legacy of bipartisanship, including bipartisan passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, hasn’t entirely disappeared.
True, organized disability activists do tend to be ideologically somewhat left of center. This is almost by default because most advanced disability policy involves approaches that are more accepted on the Left than on the Right. For example, two fundamentals of disability activism are funding health care and support benefits with more generous tax dollars, and advancing disabled individuals’ rights through broad and aggressive civil rights laws. Both can find supporters of all political stripes, but these approaches are more readily accepted by liberal Democrats than conservative Republicans.
Plus, during the 2020 election campaigns, most disability policy discussions and activity happened among Democrats, with at least 10 Democratic presidential candidates offering detailed disability platforms and Republicans offering virtually none.
On the other hand, Republicans and other conservatives can sometimes be more instinctively responsive on certain disability issues. And we often see some unusual partnerships across standard partisan divides and ideologies on specific disability policy questions. For example:
- Education advocacy for children and youth with disabilities involves appeals for full funding and stricter adherence to equal education laws, which are natural approaches for progressive Democrats. At the same time, the ongoing struggle for support services, integration, and educational quality have also generated some of the same skepticism of public schools and teacher’s unions that are more characteristic of conservative Republicans.
- Assisted suicide and abortion are most commonly debated on pure moral or religious terms, in which the Left favors the right to both, and the Right opposes. Disability advocates, however, often come at these issues from different angles. On these issues, or certain aspects of them, some progressive disability activists find themselves in uneasy alliance with conservative “right to life” advocates and organizations, and in a struggle for understanding from some of their usual progressive allies.
- Most recently, medical triage policies emerging out of the Covid-19 pandemic have raised even more urgent concerns about how both government and health care institutions regard disabled people’s right to receive equal medical care, and fundamentally, their right to live. In this struggle, disability advocates who are largely progressive in their orientation found the Trump Administration unusually responsive to this concern. The Department of Justice has largely supported efforts to prohibit systematic denial of treatment for Covid-19 due to disability.
Again, motivations and arguments differ, often a lot, but disability issues do occasionally bring otherwise polarized political and philosophical camps together.
Finally, data from recent election polling suggest that with only slight variations, disabled people in general vote pretty much the same as non-disabled people.
Pew Research polling after 2016, and preliminary results of Lake Research and Tarrance Group pre-election 2020 polling show that the voting balance for voters with disabilities between the main two parties and presidential candidates is sometimes nearly identical, and at most no more than 5-6% different in either direction from the preferences of all voters. Both polls suggest that disabled and disability ally voters vote pretty much like other voters, with relatively little in the way of a strong or consistent disability-based partisan preference. In other words, disability alone doesn’t seem to predict or determine who people vote for.
Meanwhile, age, education, race, and other demographic factors appear much more decisive, including among disabled voters themselves. As with the general voting population, younger disabled voters with higher educations and / or marginalized identities are far more likely to vote for Democrats. White, older, and less educated disabled voters are still more likely to vote Republican.
This could lead some political strategists to conclude that disabled voters aren’t worth pursuing since they don’t seem to “deliver” for any particular party or ideology. But the disability community is only beginning to become aware of itself as a distinct political constituency. Disabled voters are only starting to think of disability as something that might influence their politics. And candidates have just barely begun ramping up the breadth and detail of their policy pitches and outreach to disabled voters.
The point is, there is a lot of untapped and under-realized potential for literally anyone who wants to court the disability vote. That’s one opening for growth that nobody who wants to succeed in politics should ignore.
4. The pandemic makes disability policy issues more urgent, not less.
As has been noted all along, but too often forgotten, people with disabilities are at higher than average risk from Covid-19. For some of us it’s a higher medical risk due to our conditions. For others the risk comes from the situations we are in because of our conditions – like being stuck in nursing homes or other congregate care where isolation is nearly impossible. Disabled and chronically ill people have already suffered and died in stunning numbers. And we need help, specifically:
- Reaffirmation of our right to full medical care for Covid-19, regardless of our disabilities or chronic illnesses.
- Priority access to Covid-19 vaccines.
- Federal financial relief, including stimulus checks for adult dependents, (many of whom are disabled), and funding to states to support Home and Community-Based Services that help people with disabilities live independently in their own homes and avoid congregate care.
The pandemic has exposed some of the disability community’s most corrosive problems, such as over-reliance on congregate care facilities and inadequate support for independent living. Meanwhile, the pandemic has also highlighted some of our strengths and potentials, like the possibilities that can be opened up for us when employers embrace remote working.
For these and other reasons, disabled and chronically ill people should be at the very center of decision-making about vaccine priorities, pandemic relief, and above all, planning for how future public health emergencies are handled.
5. Government can actually do things that would noticeably improve disabled people’s lives.
This is the fundamental argument of almost all disability activism. We know how to make disabled people’s lives better. We just need the political will and power to make it happen. Opportunities for real, measurable improvements are plentiful and easy to spot:
- Make safety net programs like Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income more generous, so people who can’t work can still live decently in today’s economy, not the economy of 1970.
- Make eligibility for these programs more durable and stable, so people with disabilities can work when they can, and earn and save flexibly over time, without constant fear of losing benefits – and so they can all marry if they wish without being financially penalized.
- Make complete health care coverage something no disabled person can lose for any reason. Health insurance should be a key to greater freedom, not a virtual prison.
- Include disabled people in government itself, especially in the development of disability policy. This includes encouraging disabled people to run for office, and appointing qualified, experienced disabled people to responsible positions throughout government and the public policy sphere.
These are all initiatives the incoming federal and state administrations can pursue, without taking their eyes off today’s most urgent crises. In fact, making progress on some of these disability issues will actually help solve some of American society’s most persistent problems.
It’s easy to over-hype the idea that disability issues can or even should be entirely bipartisan. Now more than ever, some of our divides are there for a reason, and principles give us little or no wiggle room to compromise or collaborate.
But precisely because of how dire and hopeless our political situation seems to be, it makes sense to prioritize some policy projects that have even a tiny potential for broad agreement, as well as an enormous potential for improving people’s lives. Doing this can also help rebuild people’s faith in democracy as an effective process, and government as a responsive force for good.
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