Disability rights took the spotlight at the Democratic convention this year
People with disabilities are used to feeling like a second-class minority group. In American politics, when disability is mentioned at all, it’s too often in the context of trite inspiration porn or offensive and inaccurate myths about people faking problems to unfairly access public benefits. Rarely do disabled Americans hear meaningful discussion of the issues that impact our lives.
That’s what makes this year’s Democratic National Convention so surprising. The first two nights of the convention included an unusual level of disability-rights content. Both evenings have included prominent remarks from disabled speakers with decades-long relationships with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Yesterday’s session took place during the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Former US Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the original co-sponsors of the ADA, spoke early in the day’s schedule about that landmark event. He took the opportunity to teach the assembled delegates how to say America in sign language — then praised Hillary’s support for ending an exemption that allowed companies to pay some disabled workers less than the minimum wage, and for passing legislation to promote community living supports.
Disability rights has long been a passionate cause of Sen. Harkin and a few other elected officials with a personal connection to the community. What’s unusual about this year’s convention was the degree to which disability has played a major role in the primetime symbolism used by the party to make their case to the American people.
Some of this may reflect a longstanding personal interest in the topic by the candidate. As Bill Clinton mentioned in his remarks last night, Hillary Clinton began her law career advocating for children with disabilities with the Children’s Defense Fund before the passage of Public Law 94-132, which required public schools to accept children with disabilities. Her campaign has issued impressively detailed policy plans regarding autism, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s, and HIV/AIDS, among other topics.
But it also reflects some important changing dynamics in America’s disability politics
The disability community has matured politically
Americans with disabilities want to be recognized as an interest group worth pandering to — not as a source of inspiration or pity for the general public. Many believe that’s finally happening this year.
Even during the primaries, candidates on both sides of the aisle had begun to make commitments. When Jeb Bush rolled out his campaign, he highlighted the work he had done as governor to expand services to Floridians with developmental disabilities. John Kasich made similar remarks on the campaign trail.
In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton made an early splash with a detailed plan for policies relevant to autism: It included commitments to expand funding for integrated employment opportunities as well as investments in services for autistic adults. Later, on the campaign trail, she responded to a question from an autistic lawyer in Wisconsin by committing to change federal labor law to extend minimum-wage protections to all disabled workers. She went on to endorse the Disability Integration Act, legislation designed to create an enforceable right for community-based supports. In both instances, Sen. Sanders quickly followed suit.
Interestingly, both the Democratic and Republican party platforms call for eliminating sub-minimum wage compensation to disabled workers (somewhat ironically so for the GOP, given that the party doesn’t support a federal minimum wage). And when an early draft of the Democratic platform was released without mention of the need for community-based services for the disabled, vocal lobbying by activists convinced the party to include language addressing their concerns.
In 2016, the Democrats have an opportunity to dominate the disability vote — and they know it
There’s another reason why disability issues are getting greater representation at the convention. The Democratic Party in the 21st century has bet big on health care — if you want the federal government to play a role in expanding access and improving benefits, most of the policy proposals you’ll like will be on one side of the aisle.
Post-ACA, the percentage of Americans without health insurance is rapidly dropping. When President Obama came into office, the critical issue highlighted by health reform proponents was the lack of affordable coverage for a population of mostly non-disabled adults. Now that the ACA has created a pathway to universal insurance coverage, focus is starting to shift to what that insurance will pay for — an issue that’s most relevant for people with disabilities and those with chronic illness. At this point, if you want to do meaningful health policy, you have to focus on people with disabilities.
This isn’t only relevant for future policymaking. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, political compromise necessitated excluding health insurance from its nondiscrimination protections. The passage of the Affordable Care Act finally changed that, ending discrimination against Americans with disabilities and other pre-existing conditions on the insurance market.
While Republicans have a significant disability policy record of their own (the ADA itself was signed by George H.W. Bush), their party’s strenuous efforts to repeal the ACA and its ban on pre-existing-condition discrimination makes it difficult for them to reach out to the disability vote. As long as repealing the ACA remains a top priority for the GOP, the Democrats will have an easier case to make to Americans with disabilities. With that in mind, it’s not so surprising that they’ve chosen to boost the profile given to disability at this year’s convention.
Ari Ne’eman is the president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an advocacy organization run by and for autistic adults seeking to increase the representation of autistic people across society. He has also served on the National Council on Disability, a federal agency that advises Congress and the president on disability policy issues