Top 5 Disability Issues

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Andrew Pulrang

The primary debates are over, Donald Trump changes his mind again and decides to debate Bernie Sanders after all. Now is a good time to let the remaining candidates do their thing and look instead at which disability issues matter to us most.

What do we want the candidates to say about disability when the hot spotlights of the party conventions are on them in July? Which policy ideas do we want them to talk about during the fall campaign, leading up to November 8, election day? Which kinds of proposals would you bring up if you had the chance to talk with a candidate for President, House, Senate, or local office?

Put another way, if we could get commitments from candidates on just 5 disability issues, which would you choose?

One approach is to think about disabled people’s most basic unmet needs. What are the essential building blocks of a better life for Americans with disabilities?

First, we need to be able to live independently, in our own places, not in nursing homes or institutions.

Second, we need financial security, and the freedom to earn more than that by working when we can.

Third, we need to be safe from physical harm and worse.

Finally, we need disability policies and programs to be designed and implemented by people who really understand the needs and priorities of other disabled people.

These are all solid principles, but what specific proposals should we tell candidates we want them to get behind? Here are my “Top 5” disability policy for this year’s elections:

1. Pass the Disability Integration Act

Passing this bill seems like the most direct way to make independence a real choice for people with significant disabilities in every state. If you need help to get out of bed, bathe, get dressed, go to the toilet, cook a meal, or keep your home clean, you should be able to get that help without having to move into some kind of facility, as if personal care can only happen in a special building. This Senate bill, sponsored by Senator Chuck Schumer and written with the help of CDR, is a concrete proposal that every candidate for federal office should address. Cosponsor it, endorse it, ask questions about it, or even oppose it and explain why. The right to live in your own home and make your own life choices is about as fundamental as it gets. Click here for more information on the Disability Integration Act.

2. Package of policies to reduce “work disincentives”

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has hovered between 65 and 75 percent for decades, in bad economic times and good. There are all kinds of ideas for what to do about it. Persuade employers to hire disabled people. Improve education. Teach disabled people basic workplace skills. But one of the consistent problems disabled people themselves bring up is that if they are fortunate enough to get a good job, the risk of losing absolutely essential benefits holds them back. A couple of years ago, Congress passed and the President signed the ABLE Act, partly in order to make a small dent in this problem, but bigger results may require bolder action. Here are just a few specific suggestions:

– Double the length of the Social Security “Trial Work Period”
– Double the amount of Social Security’s measurement of “Substantial Gainful Activity”
– Make Medicaid eligibility permanent, regardless of income, for anyone needing long term care

These measures might make budget-conscious people’s eyes bug out in horror, but if we are serious about wanting disabled people to work and “give back” to the economy, the costs might well be worth it.

3. Ban sub-minimum wage

Allowing employers to pay people with certain kinds of disabilities less than Minimum Wage was another attempt at reducing unemployment for disabled people, and it started back in the 1930s. Sometimes ideas can be good and progressive at one point, and later we realize that they aren’t acceptable. For-profit employers exploit these exemptions, and nonprofit employers are increasingly shifting to more integrated, fairer models anyway. It’s past time to say, officially, that if you’re employed and getting a paycheck, it ought to be at least Minimum Wage, regardless of your disability or your “level” of productivity. For more information on this complex and often controversial issue, read this report from the National Council on Disability.

4. Require nation-wide mandatory training for all law enforcement on dealing with disabled people.

A lot of disability activists argue that we need more than more “disability awareness” to address the shocking incidence of disabled people being attacked and even killed by police. Making police officers sit through another seminar just seems inadequate, when the level of ignorance, poor judgment, and prejudice involved undoubtedly runs deep. Yet, it seems ludicrous that specific training on recognizing and interacting with disable people isn’t required for everyone who wears a badge and carries a gun. Making it a requirement would be a start, if not a solution.

5. Pledge to appoint disabled people to top administrative posts

In an online disability issues survey conducted by #CripTheVote, (a Twitter campaign I co-organized along with Alice Wong and Gregg Beratan), the number one policy issue was, “Hire and appoint more disabled people to government and policy-making positions.” We were surprised it came out on top, but we shouldn’t have been. No matter how good an idea is on paper, what matters is how it works in real life. We need more disabled people in government at all levels to design better disability policy, implement it the right way, be there when it needs to be revised, and figure out what to do next. It’s not about “representation” or more job opportunities for disability activists, it’s about disabled people having a voice in the decisions and work that affect us most.

If all five of these measures passed, with the help of a new President and Congress, we would see real, measurable improvements in the lives of disabled people. This Top 5 won’t solve all of our problems, but they would make a big dent.

My colleague Emily Munson has put together a similar list. Please read it, compare, and feel free to share your own ideas.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang