2020 Campaign – September 2019 Recap

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Andrew Pulrang

It seems like the 2020 campaign for President has been going on forever, but it’s still 2019 and the first primary is about five months away. However, it does feel like we have just finished a sort of “stage one” of the campaign and entered an informal “stage two.”

We’ve gotten through three grueling rounds of Democratic debates. Six Democrats have dropped out. Last week’s third debate helped separate the serious contenders from most of the long-shot, vanity, or book-deal candidates. 24 candidates are still formally running, but depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between three and 10 serious Democratic candidates left … plus President Trump and three Republicans hoping to steal the nomination from him, or just take some kind of noble stand against him.

A lot has already happened, but boy do we have a long way to go, and no doubt a lot more to see.

So, what have voters with disabilities learned so far?

  • Candidate websites aren’t accessible. Some are improving, but very, very slowly and unevenly.
  • Several efforts are underway by disability organizations to ask all the candidates some key disability policy questions, and present side-by-side comparisons of their answers. This effort, too, is just beginning to produce results, but very, very slowly.
  • Some of the candidates’ health care plans include home care, some don’t. But it’s hard to tell which is which, partially because the debate is completely centered on “Medicare For All’ vs. various public option and buy-in plans. So we’ve heard a lot of loud moral declarations, but not many coherent details. Neither the candidates nor the debate moderators are talking about the benefits and risks of different health care proposals on people with disabilities.
  • Elizabeth Warren put out a plan to increase Social Security benefits, which could be a big plus for disabled people. But her plan as presented isn’t clear enough yet to tell how it would affect people on disability benefits like SSDI and SSI.
  • Most of the candidates’ opioid policy plans include upsetting aspects for disabled people, especially those with chronic pain.
  • Unlike in the 2016 campaign, few of the Democratic candidates are openly blaming gun violence on mental illness. Meanwhile the President appears to want to focus almost all attention on mental health surveillance and re-opening mental institutions instead of discussing gun control.
  • Two outsider, non-politician candidates each have policy ideas and rhetoric that are highly disturbing to at least some disabled people, in ways that almost nobody else notices or understands. Williamson’s philosophy of “illness” keeps leading her to imply that a lot of us need spiritual healing more than actual medical care. And Andrew Yang’s Universal Basic Income plan … which might theoretically appeal to disabled people … would simply replace current disability benefits with a much less generous grant, a substantial net loss for most disabled people.
  • Well-regarded candidates are making “disability gaffes,” rhetorical mistakes, and disability terminology fails that may or may not say much about their actual attitude towards disabled people, but definitely call into question how thoroughly they are listening to disabled voters’ preferences.
  • A few candidates have made commitments and moves to hire disabled people as campaign workers and strategists. But it’s been hard to pin down who they are and what they are doing. It seems like candidates and maybe even disabled staff are ambivalent about whether they even want to make these hires public.
  • When candidates do mention disabled voters at all, they still tend to focus on single individuals they have met as examples of either inspiration or very specific kinds of deprivation. Disability policy as a topic exists so far only on their (inaccessible) websites and not consistently even there. Disability issues have not yet been squarely addressed in a public way.

There is still time to make the 2020 Elections a breakthrough in politics for the disability community. There are small signs that we are no longer being entirely ignored. The candidates’ stumbles and gaffes on disability matters may even be a hopeful sign that they are at least trying to talk to disabled voters. But the candidates need to grow up fast, or they risk alienating disabled voters unnecessarily. And there’s still a risk that we will end up with nominees and an election day without  a real discussion of disability issues.

But that’s just more reason for us to pay attention, participate, and contribute, in whatever ways we can.


Andrew Pulrang spent many years working at the North Country Center for Independence in Plattsburgh, NY, most recently as the Executive Director. He is a co-coordinator with disability activists Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan of the Twitter hashtag, #CripTheVote, focused on discussing the participation and leadership of disabled people in voting, politics, and disability policy.

Published on September 16, 2019