Washington, D.C., Dec. 2 – Under the banner headline of “Fighting for an Accessible and Inclusive America,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren pledges she “will always fight for the full inclusion of people with disabilities.” The presidential candidate’s thorough plan to address disability rights highlights both her record of advocacy in areas such as employment and education while also pledging major actions on health care and inclusion. Her disability rights plan concludes by making it clear that this “policy is personal.”
Economic Opportunities and Employment
In the section about plans to advance economic opportunities for Americans with disabilities, Sen. Warren’s plan focuses on two critical issues: providing “a path to good-paying jobs” and “the principle of equal pay for equal work.”
The first issue is especially critical for youth with disabilities who often face significant challenges successfully finding a rewarding career, developing their skills or transitioning into the workforce. Sen. Warren commits “to do everything we can to ensure that all students, regardless of means or background, have access to career training.” As an example of the Senator’s record on this issue, her website mentions the passage of the Free Career and Technical Education for High School Students Act. That bill would “reduce or eliminate out-of-pocket costs” for “students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and students with other barriers to educational achievement” interested in pursuing career or technical education.
Reducing such costs could be a valuable way to ensure more opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the workforce. Out of more than 20-million working-age people with disabilities, 7.5 million have jobs. This data also shows the serious gaps that remain between disabled and non-disabled Americans. 37 percent of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community had a job, compared to 77.2 percent for people without disabilities.
The second employment issue discussed in Sen. Warren’s plan are the laws that make it “perfectly legal for an employer to hire workers with disabilities and pay them below what they pay workers without disabilities for doing the same work.” Under existing federal law, specifically Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, some employers can receive a certificate that allows them to pay employees with below the minimum wage. Sen. Warren minces no words in her perspective on this practice: “It’s a disgrace.”
The Senator goes on to say that “individuals with disabilities should have the opportunity to reach their full potential in competitive and integrated employment settings, and they should receive fair wages for their work.” This perspective mirrors the growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that the time has come to responsibly end the practice of paying subminimum wages to employees with disabilities and responsibly transition them into the competitive workforce.
Educational Opportunities for Students with Disabilities
Given the critical linkage between employment outcomes and education attention, Sen. Warren’s disability rights plan articulates a vision of how to ensure “a high-quality education for all children.” Drawing on her early career experiences “teaching students with speech and learning disabilities at a public school,” Sen. Warren highlights her extensive legislative record on education policy. From the Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers Act to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Sen. Warren speaks at great length about what she has done to make America’s education system more just, more equitable and more accessible. Each of those bills has had or would have different consequences for students with disabilities and their families.
Nationally, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school each year compared to 86 percent of student without disabilities. That means there is 21-point gap in outcomes. A factor behind that gap in outcomes is the lack of full federal funding to support students with disabilities and special education services. The Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers Act has been a major item on the legislative agenda of many advocacy organizations focused on educational success for students with disabilities. Likewise, despite significant issues related to implementation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was a major achievement that became law with Sen. Warren’s support.
Ensuring Health Care for People with Disabilities
Medicare For All has become a signature campaign issue for the Massachusetts Senator. From the main stage of multiple DNC debates to townhalls across Iowa, Sen. Warren has spread her message far and wide. A critical distinction to the Senator’s approach to promising “every single person in this country a guarantee of high-quality health care” is the inclusion of “access to long-term supports and services.” As captured by the Long-Term Services and Support Task Forceof the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities, “for the disability community, access to health care is not only a matter of life and death, but also a matter of liberty and civil rights.” In last 2018, the Task Force wrote, “people with disabilities of all ages need access to the right kinds of health care services and supports to ensure that they can live in the community and have lives and jobs like everyone else.” For thousands of people with disabilities that means access to Long-term services and supports (LTSS) and home and community-based services (HCBS), which provide daily living supports that people with disabilities and older adults.
However, as noted by disability right lawyer and long-time advocate Robyn Powell, “people with disabilities also want to ensure that Medicare for All policies include access to other types of health-care services, such as dental, vision, mental, and reproductive health care, as well as prescription drugs.” Thus, robust participation by the disability community in these and all other political discussion is critical.
Community Inclusion and Engagement
Which in turn, connects with another of Sen. Warren’s commitments to the disability community. Her campaign plan states that “people with disabilities are often excluded from participating in their communities due to inaccessibility.” Further, the plan states that “removing barriers to participation is essential for people with disabilities to ensure true equality.” Thus, the candidate offers critical recommendations around election security, assistive technology, promoting accessibility, and access to community living. A tangible example of this commitment is Sen. Warren’s cosponsorship of the Disability Integration Act (DIA). This proposal “would require insurance providers that cover long-term supports and services to allow people with disabilities to access home and community-based services and lead an independent life.” DIA has been a major but as yet unrealized legislative goal for the wider disability community for many years now.
The final piece of Sen. Warren’s commitment to disability inclusion during this campaign season is not actually found in the campaign’s disability rights plan. Rather, it’s found on a page dedicated to outlining Warren for President’s commitment to providing “a fully accessible website experience.” In a lengthy statement, the website discusses how it is intended to be accessed by all users of assistive technology such as “screen reading software, screen enlargement software and alternative keyboard input devices” and “is implementing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0/2.1, level AA standard on all page content.”
A review of the Elizabeth Warren YouTube channel found that many videos feature hard coded captions or auto-generated captions, enabling more participation and access for people with a reach visual or auditory needs. Captioning is a critical but often overlooked aspect of accessibility and valuable for reaching the widest possible audience. A 2011 study led by Johns Hopkins researchers, which used the World Health Organization’s definition for hearing loss (i.e. the inability to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less in the speech frequencies) found that nearly a fifth of all Americans, or about 30 million people, have hearing loss in both ears, and that 48 million Americans have hearing loss in at least one ear.
“It is vital for the democratic process to be open to all people and all means all – including people with disabilities,” said Lauren Appelbaum, managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication on the intersection of politics and disability. “Ensuring accessibility and having meaningful disability policies are just two of the important issues candidates need to address.”
For a candidate who has distinguished herself through comprehensive and carefully crafted policy proposals, Sen. Warren has taken the same approach to disability rights issues. Covering all aspect of life, community and independence, the plan states both her record on these key issues as well as her intentions if elected President. While she is now one candidate among many with a disability rights plan, such plans are critical news for the one-in-five Americans living with a disclosed disability.
Voter research conducted by RespectAbility, a nonprofit that has reached out to all of the presidential campaigns about all aspects of accessibility, shows how disability issues connect to all aspects of American life. “Fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member or a close friend with disabilities,” said former Representative and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett, who is the chair of RespectAbility. “People with disabilities are politically active swing voters, and candidates should take note of important issues they care about.” As the campaign season heats up in 2020, the personal health, economic wellbeing and political engagement of people with disabilities will be a critical indicator of the shifting political winds.
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.