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Kamala Harris Aims to Expand Economic Opportunity for Americans with Disabilities

Washington, D.C., August 29 – Presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris is calling for expanded “economic opportunity and security for people with disabilities” in a plan unveiled today. She points out that just one-third of people with disabilities who are working-age are employed, compared to three-quarters of those without disabilities in the same age range.

Sen. Harris’ plan focuses on ways to “eliminate barriers that make it harder for people with disabilities to fully participate in our workforce.” One-in-four adults in the United States today have a disability and just 37 percent of those who are ages 18-64 are employed. This means that out of more than 20 million working-age people with disabilities, just 7.5 million have jobs. 

Her plan includes six parts:

  • Competitive, Integrated Employment: Sen. Harris pledges to pass the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which would allow state grant programs to help businesses hire and fully integrate more employees with disabilities. She also pledged to phase out subminimum wage for people with disabilities, ensuring that everyone – including those with disabilities – would be subject to a minimum wage of $15 under the Raise the Wage Act. Currently, people with disabilities are more likely to earn low and less-than-minimum wages.
  • Transition to Workforce: She calls for changes to the vocational rehabilitation system at the U.S. Department of Education, including an increase in funding and expanding its ability to cover more people. Currently, many states have years-long waiting periods for people with disabilities to receive grants and training to prepare for, secure and retain employment. This includes ensuring people receive “workplace accommodations, adaptive technology and devices, and other things that can be barriers to finding and maintaining a job.”
  • Transportation and Housing: Sen. Harris pledges to expand accessible, affordable transportation and housing options. Even though legislation exists to mandate accessible accommodations, in reality, not enough exists. She points out that “more than a quarter of rail stations across the country are not fully accessible to people with disabilities.”
  • Education: Noting that education “is key to ensuring long-term economic opportunity,” Sen. Harris would fully fund the federal government’s commitment to IDEA to ensure education funding for students with disabilities. She also pledged to expand access to post-secondary education for people with disabilities. Just 7 percent of people born with a disability graduate from college. 
  • Health Care: Noting that health care is “core to economic security,” Sen. Harris pledged to fight to pass her Medicare for All plan, which would cover screenings and treatments for children with disabilities. The plan “fully covers comprehensive long-term services and supports” and ensure they “are consumer-directed and are provided in home- and community-based settings.”
  • Federal Government to Lead by Example: In 2010, President Barack Obama had a goal to make the federal government a model inclusive employer. Sen. Harris will “direct agencies to create updated plans for how to make the recruitment, hiring, and retention of people with disabilities a priority in her administration.” She also pledged to take executive action to ensure all technology in use by the federal government is fully accessible. 

Sen. Harris also pledged to ratify U.S. participation in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and would ensure disaster planning includes protections for people with disabilities. 

While there are some policies unique to individual with disabilities, including subminimum wage and living with the community, all policy plans – including those focused on education, employment, poverty, criminal justice reform and others – affect people with disabilities. 

In Harris’ plan for full inclusion and civil rights for people with disabilities, Harris acknowledges this, pledging to “have diverse leaders with disabilities developing all the policies her administration champions, including priorities that will lift up people with disabilities.”

Her pledge to create new senior-level positions in the White House would ensure that the disability lens is applied for all policy decisions, especially domestic and economic initiatives. 

Putting a Face to Policy Issues

The Harris campaign also released a video on Twitter featuring Alex Watters, a city councilmember in Sioux City, Iowa who uses a wheelchair. “I think sometimes there’s a perception of people with disabilities that they’re not going to be able to contribute,” Watters said. “I’m here to tell you that that’s wrong.”

“We need to change the perception,” he continued. “Being accessible is not enough. We need to make sure we’re being proactive. I don’t want to be limited by income guidelines or by access to care, or by anything else… It makes sense to invest in people with disabilities, helping them get off of services and back into competitive, integrated employment.”

This video includes open captioning, which is important not only for people who are deaf or hard of hearing but also for the general public, as 85 percent of people watch videos on social media on mute. However, this video, like all videos produced by the presidential candidates thus far, does not include audio description for people unable to see the images depicted in the video. 

Harris Plan a Continuation of Outreach to Disability Community

This plan follows a blog post she wrote in commemoration of the 29th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) last month, “recommitting to build an America that is fully inclusive and accessible for everyone,” noting that there is still a lot of work to do 29 years later.

She called for ensuring all people with disabilities receive the minimum wage or higher; equal access to educational opportunities for children with disabilities; and “access to quality health care and community supports and services.”

Also in July, Harris unveiled her campaign’s Americans with Disabilities Leadership Council, which “will work closely with my team and me throughout this campaign to take on the issues that are most important to Americans with disabilities.”

Of the 20 candidates who were still in the race at the time, just 12 made any mention of the ADA anniversary on July 26. Yet, the topic of employment for people with disabilities – or any meaningful conversation of disability – did not occur at the second round of debates in Detroit that occurred just a few days later.

Importance of the Disability Vote

“More than half of Americans with disabilities have reached out to their elected officials or attended a political rally in the recent past versus 39 percent of Americans without a disability or any disability connection,” said former U.S. Representative and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett, citing a recent poll. Bartlett, who was a primary author of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, is the board chair of RespectAbility.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 56 million Americans live with some form of disability. This can include visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, visual impairments or hearing loss to people living with invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health or Autism.

Two separate bipartisan polls following the last presidential election showed that voters with disabilities and their family and friends voted in big numbers for President Donald Trump. Fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member, or a close friend with disabilities. Therefore, it is in the best interest of every presidential candidate and the citizens of this country for candidates to recognize disability issues at this time.

“Candidates for office ignore the disability community at their peril,” added Bartlett. “People with disabilities are politically active swing voters, and candidates should take note of the important issues they care about.”


RespectAbility is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so that people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of their communities. RespectAbility does not rate or endorse candidates. View more coverage of 2020 presidential candidates.

Published in2020 CampaignDemocrats

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