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Days Before the Iowa Caucus, Sanders Unveils New “Fighting for Disability Rights Plan”

The Vermont Senator pledges to “incorporate disability issues into every other area of public policy.”  

Washington, D.C., Feb. 1 – With just days to go before the Iowa Caucus, Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released his own comprehensive disability policy plan. Much like that of fellow progressive candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Sanders’ plan covers the broadest possible spectrum of disability issues including “housing, health care, education, transportation, technology and many others.” If elected, Sen. Sanders commits to “incorporate disability issues into every other area of public policy” and “to promote access, autonomy, inclusion and self-determination for all.” 

The release of Sanders’ plan also follows those of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mr. Andrew Yang. While former Vice President Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and businessman Tom Steyer have yet to release a full plan or complete RespectAbility’s disability candidate questionnaire, the fact that so many of the candidates have laid out plans is welcome news for the one-in-four adults living with a disability.

One of the central tenets of Sanders’ plan is the need to “center the voices and needs of people with disabilities.” To that end, as president, Sanders would create a National Office of Disability Coordination and has committed to tapping a person with a disability to make meaningful inclusion happen in every aspect of government.

While Sanders’ plan discusses some key legislative proposals such as Disability Integration Act and Medicare for All, the Vermont Senator envisions executive action as a necessity to better protect disability rights. Proposed executive orders that Sanders would sign include appointing a person with a disability to “serve as Senior Advisor on Disability Policy on the White House Domestic Policy Council,” including people with disabilities under the definition of a “Medically Underserved Populations” and to issue new rules protecting people with disabilities “against health care discrimination.” Two of these proposed executive actions would directly advance employment opportunities for the millions of Americans with disabilities who want to work.

A Focus on Employment

Those proposals include expanding the “Schedule A Hiring Authority” which prioritizes the recruitment of workers with disabilities into the government’s workforce and issuing new regulations around federal contracting. Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Labor articulated new goals for employers doing business with the federal government to recruit, hire and retain qualified individuals with disabilities. Specifically, federal contractors are supposed to have seven percent of their workforce be individuals with disabilities. In Sanders’ plan, the Senator would “more closely reflect the proportion of people with disabilities in the general population” – which is 25 percent of adults in America.  

Even 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lack of employment opportunities among people with disabilities is a critical barrier to full inclusion. Out of more than 20 million working-age people with disabilities, 7.5 million have jobs. Data shows the serious gaps that remain between disabled and nondisabled Americans. Just 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.

Sen. Sanders goes further in his plans for getting more workers with disabilities into the competitive workforce. He would enact “a federal jobs guarantee for every worker in this country” and ensure that “living- wage jobs integrated in the community to all people with disabilities” willing to “work through the program.” Further, Sen. Sanders’ connects his signature commitment on Medicare for All to advancing employment opportunities. Under Sanders’ plans for universal health care coverage, “supported employment services” would be covered, directly ensuring that millions more people with disabilities could enter the workforce.

Sen. Sanders’ new plan also explicitly commits to eliminating “oppressive asset and income restrictions that force those with disabilities to spend their lives in poverty.” Such a change in law would have massive implications for millions of people with disabilities and their families.

A Focus on Immigrants with Disabilities

Throughout Sanders’ proposal is a commitment to ensure that the disability connections across all major areas of foreign and domestic policy are recognized. That commitment is clearly seen in how the plan touches on the issue of immigrants with disabilities.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major 5-4 ruling allowing an expansion of the definition of “public charge” to deny green cards to people who may need government aid. This ruling will directly impact immigrants with disabilities who would qualify for Medicaid. Sanders’ not only commits to “overturn President Trump’s so-called ‘public charge’ rule” but also to build “a family-based immigration system…. fully accessible to people with disabilities.” To accomplish this, the plan envisions “the newly created National Office of Disability Coordination” working directly with the relevant parts of the immigration system to ensure accessibility, correct the wrongs of the recent past and reunite separated families.

This is welcome news for the disability community, which, by its nature, is intersectional and includes millions of immigrants. Immigration advocacy organization IMM Print estimates that there are up to “1.5 million undocumented individuals…with a disability.” Further, Census Bureau data shows that there are more than 44 million immigrants living in the United States and out of that number, up to six million are probably living with a disability.

Sen. Sanders’ plan covers many other elements of disability policy and reflects a commitment to the standing principle of “Nothing About Us, Without Us.” During the 2016 presidential primary, disability issues were fairly absent from his campaign. While he signed on as a cosponsor of the Disability Integration Act, called for the end of subminimum wages for people with disabilities and called for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act last cycle, he did not have detailed plans for these or other disability issues. With this plan, the Senator is delving into disability policy specifics in many areas important to the disability community. 

Prior to the release of this plan, Sen. Sanders’ campaign completed RespectAbility’s nonpartisan candidate questionnaire on disability issues. To learn more, the full text of RespectAbility’s questions and the responses of all the candidates who have responded to the questionnaire  can found on The RespectAbility Report:

As the Democratic presidential candidates vie for their party’s nomination, reaching out to the disability community can mean the difference between winning or not. According to a Rutgers University study, 14.3 million citizens with disabilities voted in 2018. Furthermore, research conducted in the 2018 election shows that 74 percent of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member or a close friend with disabilities.

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. The questionnaire is purely for educational purposes as voters go to the polls. RespectAbility has reached out to all of the presidential campaigns on both sides of the aisle and will be posting all responses on The RespectAbility Report. View more coverage of 2020 presidential candidates. 

Published in2020 CampaignBernie SandersDemocrats

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