Four Presidential Election Issues Disabled People Should Watch

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Andrew Pulrang

Usually, disabled people complain that nobody in politics talks about our needs and priorities. However, this election cycle, some of the hottest issues and policy debates have important disability angles, even if they aren’t obvious “disability issues.” Our challenge is to join these debates, figure out what they mean to disabled voters, and make sure candidates hear our perspectives.

Health Care

Americans with disabilities have more reason than most to want a better health care system. And on balance, we are probably more willing than the average voter to fight for major changes, such as “Medicare For All” proposals.

On the other hand, disabled people tend to care a lot about certain specifics and not just broad principles. In addition to individual affordability and overall cost, we also care about having health insurance that’s impossible to “lose,” plans that fully cover long term home care, and systems that allow generous provision of medications and adaptive equipment (like wheelchairs), without excessive red tape and long waits.

Also, some disabled voters need help as soon as possible, and may be less willing to reject smaller improvements that are less than ideal. So we may be more ready than others to opt for more modest and targeted reforms if the alternative is no progress at all. There is definitely something to be said for fighting for everything you want and not compromising. But when the stakes are as high as they are for disabled people, the details matter, and compromise isn’t always a dirty word.

To see what the candidates are proposing on healthcare and what the different plans would and wouldn’t include, check out these resources:

Health Care, Medicare for All and the 2020 Election: Where the Candidates Stand – US News and World Report

Compare Medicare-for-all and Public Plan Proposals – The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Opioid Policies

The opioid crisis is intensely emotional from all angles. Life and death matters naturally are. Meanwhile, it’s incredibly hard to sort objective evidence from suspicion, prejudice, and fear. Disabled people don’t all agree on the nature of the problem or what should and shouldn’t be done about it. But people with chronic pain who need opioid medications to be able to function can’t help viewing the issue differently. Maybe the opioid crisis is as widespread and deadly as it is claimed to be. But does that justify treating all opioid users like criminals, or as addicts with no judgement or self-control?

At the very least, this debate must include the voices of disabled people, especially people with chronic pain. All too often, big panics over scary social trends end up hurting the most vulnerable people most. Let’s not end up 20 years from now wondering what possessed us to treat people in chronic pain so badly, and with little benefit.

How Democratic presidential candidates would combat the opioid epidemic – Vox

Social Security Increases

For the last 30 years or so, the only discussions about Social Security were about cutting its benefits, narrowing its scope, or dismantling its funding. So the fact that a top-tier Presidential candidate has now proposed increasing Social Security benefits marks a significant shift. But what does it mean for people on Social Security Disability, (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income, (SSI)?

Senator Warren’s plan appears to focus mainly on raising retirement benefits, but it explicitly includes monthly benefit increases for people on SSDI, and suggests that people on SSI might see increases too. Then there’s this from the plan:

“Updates outdated rules to further increase benefits for lower-income families, women, people with disabilities, public-sector workers, and people of color.”

This is a tantalizing statement. It may simply be another way of referring to higher monthly benefits. But changes in “outdated rules” could potentially include raising the limits on how much an SSDI recipient can earn and still get benefits, or how much someone on SSI can earn and save without losing eligibility. These kinds of changes have been on disabled people’s wish lists for a long time, and now seems like a good time to push for them, with Sen. Warren and all the other candidates as well.

Expanding Social Security – Elizabeth Warren

Universal Basic Income

This is an interesting and complex idea by itself. But it is also the kind of idea that can look appealing to disabled people, unless you are actually disabled and know how things like benefits and personal finances actually work for disabled people.

Universal Basic Income, (UBI), is an economic and anti-poverty model where instead of maintaining a raft of targeted benefits and programs solely for “poor people,” the government just gives every citizen, regardless of income or other status, a monthly check to supplement their income and provide a secure financial base in an often turbulent economy. Along these lines, Presidential candidate Andrew Yang is proposing what he calls a “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 per month for everyone over 18 years old.

A simple monthly cash payment instead of more targeted programs with lots of rules and eligibility conditions could be an appealing idea for people with disabilities, who constantly have to juggle confusing, conflicting, and restrictive benefits. In theory, “Just give us money” can be an attractive idea, offering both the security and the flexibility that so many disabled people crave.

But how would this relate to benefits disabled people get already? As the Yang plan stands now, people on SSDI would continue to get it, in addition to the $1,000 “Freedom Dividend,” but people on SSI would have to choose either SSI or the “Freedom Dividend.” This is because technically, SSDI is an “earned” benefit, and SSI is not … but legally correct or not, it seems unfair. Also, it’s not clear what other benefits would be eliminated because the “Freedom Dividend” would be viewed as a replacement. What seems like a $1,000 per month boost in income for some could end up being a paltry increase or even a net loss for disabled people who have complex finances.

The Yang plan is just one version of the Universal Basic Income idea. And at the moment, neither it nor Mr. Yang seems likely to win. However, disabled people would do well to engage with the idea and its supporters, and ask serious, critical questions.

The Freedom Dividend – Yang 2020

Basic Income – Wikipedia

So really, there’s no reason for disabled people to tap our feet waiting for “our issues” to be brought up. There are plenty of already active debates where our voices are sorely needed.



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 November 6, 2019