The Great Disappearing Act: Disability Issues at the Sixth Democratic Debate

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Emily Munson

Bernie Sanders made national news when he mentioned people with disabilities following his win in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton was also in the news this week after receiving an endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus. These headlines were aligned such that many expected Thursday’s Democratic debate, sponsored by PBS and Facebook, to focus on candidates’ plans for improving circumstances for the country’s minorities. In part, it was.

The first hour of the debate focused on domestic issues or, as moderator Gwen Ifill put it, “broadening the conversation to America’s heartland and beyond.” Apparently, people with disabilities don’t live there. We were completely ignored.

Clinton stated that, “African-Americans … face discrimination in the job market, education, housing, and the criminal justice system.” Okay. But what about people with disabilities? We have a labor participation rate of less than 20%. It is legal to pay us subminimum wages. Many students with disabilities, at least in my home state of Indiana, do not receive diplomas after completing secondary school, further limiting job prospects. As for housing, Americans with disabilities are being incarcerated in nursing homes and other institutional settings every day. Some have said that prisons are the new mental health treatment facilities.

I don’t share these facts to minimize the plight of other minority groups or suggests that their issues shouldn’t be addressed; I merely question why the world’s largest minority (i.e., people with disabilities), whose sufferings have been documented in study after study, is routinely ignored by the political class.

Sanders indirectly and very subtly suggested that part of the problem may be segregated systems for certain groups of Americans. Again, he touted his “Medicare for all” plan. I don’t think Medicare for all is the right solution for the disability community, but I do appreciate that, if passed, more American voters may care about the quality of the program. Medicaid, as many of us can attest, could be doing much better for its beneficiaries. Why is there no motivation to improve the system? Because those who participate in it – people with disabilities and the poor – have neither political clout nor the ability to make large campaign contributions. If more Americans were directly affected by the limits and frustrations imposed by Medicaid, I’d bet the program would rapidly change – although, again, possibly not for the better.

While the candidates did briefly dip into Social Security reform, it was couched in terms of SSDI, rather than SSI. Sanders referred to the “millions of seniors … trying to get by on $11,000…” As such, he proposed a reform that would “expand Social Security by $1,300 a year for people under $16,000,” a plan is designed to assist “the elderly and disabled vets.” Clinton responded by saying that she wanted caregivers to receive Social Security credits, but details were not forthcoming. The back-and-forth struck me for several reasons. First, people receiving SSI – those with disabilities – would likely be happy to receive $11,000 a year; they are forced to survive on far less. Second, $16,000 in annual income is still insufficient for a decent quality of life in most regions. Instead of receiving a government check, many people want to earn an income and aspire to achieve economic security. Instead of growing benefits, maybe we should grow employment services for people with disabilities. Finally, a pet peeve: why are disabled vets always mentioned outside the context of other people with disabilities?

The other debate topic that showed complete disregard for people with disabilities was abortion. I was pleased to see Democratic candidates finally being asked about their positions on the issue. Their answers pleased me much less. Sanders stated that he is “very proud” of “a lifetime 100% pro-choice voting record.” Clinton spotlighted her endorsements by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL. Such values mean that both Clinton and Sanders support the ability of a mother to kill a fetus on the basis of the fetus’ (expected) disability. This is eugenics, folks, and something I hope the disability community pays attention to more closely in the future. In contemporary society, where approximately 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, I think it’s clear that recognition of the moral worth of a disabled life is in jeopardy.

This debate was more of a fight than any previous matchups between Clinton and Sanders; both candidates were passionate and quickly distinguished themselves from the other. I’m hoping that as they search for ways to outshine one another in the next debate, at least one will develop serious proposals for solving problems faced by the disability community. After all, we are the world’s largest minority.

Contact: Emily Munson