Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb. 19 – Words heard during the CNN Presidential Town Hall with presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) included “Down syndrome,” “diabetes,” “alcoholism,” “addiction” and “autism.” During similar 2016 town halls on both sides of aisle, this did not occur, especially during the early part of the election season.
According to the 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.
“The disability community is the only minority anyone can join at any time due to accident, illness or injury,” said former Representative and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett. Bartlett is the chairman of RespectAbility, a Washington-based nonpartisan nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so people with disabilities can participate in all aspects of community.
Personal Connection to Disability
“I grew up in a family with alcoholism and addiction,” Klobuchar said when asked how being the daughter of an alcoholic affects her stance on health and addiction policy. “I had a lot of times in my life where I was taking the keys away or seeing him drink in the basement and it was a hard thing.”
She also shared a story of how when her daughter was born, she was unable to swallow yet kicked out of the hospital after 24 hours without help. Nearly a third of U.S. families have at least one member with a disability and 10 percent have at least one child with a disability. It is vital for leaders to share personal experiences with all types of disabilities – including addiction – to help reduce stigma surrounding them.
Klobuchar talked about how her state of Minnesota “has a lot of great treatment that I want to bring to the entire country, so everyone has this great treatment.”
“We need to make sure we are there for people, that we have treatment,” she added. “In the criminal justice system, we’re humane, that we use drug courts because once people get good treatment, they can get through anything.”
More than half of the audience raised their hands when asked if they were affected by the opioid crisis during the town hall. Responding to a question on how she would combat the opioid epidemic, Klobuchar said to “change prescribing habits across the country” and to fund treatment for addiction. What she did not mention, however, is that some people with chronic pain and other disabilities need opioids and use them responsibly.
Including Pre-Existing Conditions in Healthcare
While responding to a question about the U.S. providing Medicare for all, Klobuchar talked about the importance of Affordable Care Act covering pre-existing conditions, citing an example of a young boy with Down syndrome she met last summer.
“Just last summer a little kid in a parade in a small town with his mom and she points at her little boy who has Down syndrome and she said, ‘This is a pre-existing condition. This is what a pre-existing condition looks like.’”
Klobuchar called for universal healthcare, expanding coverage of both Medicare and Medicaid. She also talked about reducing the costs of prescription drugs, which she said comprise 20 percent of all healthcare costs.
School Safety for Students with Disabilities in a Crisis
When asked a question about keeping students safe from shootings, Klobuchar included a story about a mom whose son was killed at Sandy Hook. The mom thought of both her son, who has autism, as well as his aide, who “she knew would never leave his side.”
“When they found them shot multiple times dead, that teacher had her arms about that little boy,” Klobuchar said.
Most schools do not have emergency plans for evacuating students with disabilities including students who use a wheelchair or have another physical limitation, students who are deaf or blind, students with sensory processing issues and students with autism. Without federal guidelines, what schools do during an emergency is left to districts and individual schools to decide. Modifications for students with disabilities are rarely included. Plans often involve moving quickly, hiding or being silent. For some students with disabilities these may not be possible. In addition, while emergency preparedness often is an integral part of a school’s curriculum, for both the students with disabilities and their teachers, simulated evacuations for fire, active shooter or natural disaster must be practiced more often than what may be mandated by state law, which is just once or twice a year.
Two special education teachers Laura Clarke, Ed.D., and Dusty Columbia Embury, Ed.D., developed a teacher’s guide for supporting students with disabilities during a school crisis. “Most schools have crisis plans to support student safety, but few plans address the complex needs of students with disabilities,” they wrote. “School supports should include analysis of school plans and student strengths and needs to ensure that students with disabilities have the best opportunity to be safe in school crises.”
Ensuring Inclusion of People with Disabilities
When asked about her agenda for “Black America,” Klobuchar talked about her fights for racial equality while hitting on several other important points.
While working as a prosecutor, “I first of all wanted to make sure that our office better reflected the community we represented, including who we hired,” she said. This is an important point for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, disability statuses and more.
Klobuchar is one of a few presidential hopefuls whose announcement video included people with disabilities – both with accurate and open captioning and by visually including one person of with a visible disability, a senior who walks with the assistance of a walker.
“No matter where you come from or where you worship or what you look like, this should be a country of shared dreams,” she said Monday night.
Disabilities Affect 74 Percent of Likely Voters
A recent survey shows that fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member, or a close friend with disabilities.
“74 percent of likely voters are touched by disabilities,” said Bartlett, who was a primary author of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. “Our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life. These folks deserve an equal opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence just like anyone else. Candidates for office ignore the disability community at their peril.”
The recent poll of 1000 likely voters shows that fully 34 percent are grouped as swing voters, 36 percent as Democrat and 29 percent as Republican. 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. Nearly three-quarters of people with disabilities watch, read or listen to the news 5-7 times a week.
“This is a politically active, swing vote demographic and candidates should take note of important issues they care about, especially around employment opportunities,” noted Meagan Buren, pollster for RespectAbility.
“This community is far bigger than many people realize, including people in my profession,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, PhD, said in a statement following a bipartisan poll of 2014 voters.
“Americans with disabilities – and those who care deeply about them – are a demographic we need to pay attention to in the future,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said in a statement following the same poll.