This year marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) becoming law. The ADA was intended to ensure that people with disabilities could earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else. With the Democratic candidates debating this week in Detroit, the question remains if any of the candidates will address the one-in-four adults in the U.S. who have a disability from the debate stage.
Just 12 of the 20 Democratic candidates debating this week made any mention of the ADA anniversary on Friday.
Joe Biden tweeted that he was “proud to have cosponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act” and thanked Sen. Harkin for his “vision & persistence” to ensuring its passage, “a critical step in the fight for equal rights for people with disabilities.” Biden also talked about his own stutter, tweeting that his parents taught him “that being different is no barrier to success.”
“Today, on the Act’s anniversary, we must recommit to fully breaking down barriers so everyone has the opportunity to succeed—no matter their zip code, income, race, or disability,” Biden also tweeted. “As president, I’ll ensure everyone’s treated with dignity and respect.”
The Biden campaign also unveiled a new page on its website devoted to people with disabilities, joining the Sanders and Booker campaign in being the third campaign to do so. His plans, so far, include ensuring that children with disabilities “get the education and training they need to succeed;” protecting and building on the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid; training police departments for interactions for people with mental illness, autism or who are deaf “so misunderstanding does not lead to incarceration;” and to ensure people with mental health problems “are provided with the housing or other social services they may need.”
Cory Booker, who also has a page on his website devoted to equality for people with disabilities, tweeted “We have more to do to ensure equality for Americans with disabilities who still face high poverty rates & barriers to health care & quality of life. As president, I’ll fight for equal rights & inclusion for people with disabilities.”
“As president, Cory will work to ensure accessibility, equality, and opportunity for all people with disabilities,” his website states, including, “break down barriers to accessing employment, transportation, housing, and health care with the Disability Integration Act; fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); and raise wages for people with disabilities by phasing out the subminimum wage.”
The Booker campaign also has a new accessibility policy on its website. “Cory 2020 is dedicated to offering a quality online experience to those with disabilities,” it states. “Cory 2020 is working to achieve substantial conformance with generally-recognized and accepted guidelines for website accessibility… The website will continue to be assessed on a recurring basis in an effort to substantially comply with these guidelines.”
This is important as a study last month by the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired found that none of the 2020 presidential candidates have websites that fully comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Just a few days following this study, the Booker campaign had an hour-long phone call with RespectAbility detailing steps they could take to become more accessible – on their website as well as via social media, at events, etc.
“29 years ago today, the ADA began to tear down the walls preventing them from the fair shot they deserve,” Steve Bullock tweeted.
The Montana Governor also talked about his work as governor. “I fought for folks with disabilities to receive equal wages and work without discrimination — but we have a long way to go,” he tweeted. “On the anniversary of the ADA, we must all recommit to ensuring a fair shot for every American. As President, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Montana now ranks 8th in the nation for employment rates of people with disabilities with 31,935 of the 69,553 working-age (18-64) Montanans with disabilities being employed. The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows Montana has maintained a 45.9 percent disability employment rate from 2017 to 2018.
“For 29 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped defend the rights of disabled Americans,” Julián Castro tweeted. “It is integral to building an inclusive, fair, and just nation and as president, I will defend and strengthen it.”
In a series of additional tweets, Castro outlined his People First policies, including “fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act,” strengthening housing protections, and fixing the system that leads to disabled people being killed by police.
“There’s so much more that needs to be done to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities, and I am committed to that cause,” he closed.
“29 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act codified protections against discrimination based on disability,” Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted. “My presidency will advance this fight, including having disability community representation in my Cabinet. Let’s keep working to make our society accessible for all.”
In May, Gillibrand made news with a new commitment of having someone with a disability in her Cabinet. The issue of hiring staff with disabilities on the campaign has been addressed by two other presidential candidates: Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. Both of them have promised to hire campaign staff with disabilities, and O’Rourke promised to hire them to positions of leadership on the campaign and, if he wins, in the Oval Office. Buttigieg already has followed through with his promise of hiring a person with a disability on his campaign staff.
One month later, in response to a question posed to all of the viable 2020 presidential candidates by RespectAbility, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities, Gillibrand’s campaign has pledged to not only “make accommodations to enable staff with a disability to perform their job without undue hardship” but also “to make volunteer opportunities inclusive and encourage creative solutions to allow people with disabilities to be an active part of our team.”
Kamala Harris, who held an hour-long call with her supporters on this topic on Friday, wrote a blog post “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.”
“As the former Attorney General of California, I know the impact that strong enforcement of civil rights laws can have on the lives of Americans,” she wrote. “That’s why I will appoint an Attorney General who prioritizes enforcement of the ADA, and all disability civil rights laws, and will double the size of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to ensure we have the resources to back up that commitment.”
Harris also 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.”
“The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 29 years ago today, ensuring accessibility for all Americans and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability,” Amy Klobuchar tweeted. “It changed millions of lives and we’re a better nation because of it.”
Disability is personal to Klobuchar. When her daughter was born, she could not swallow for the first two years of her life. “Many Minnesotans know a family or a person who has been affected by a disability,” she wrote in 2015. “For a lot of us, this is personal. … [D]uring those two years, I was able to see through the eyes of a parent of a child who was struggling, and I know that, like me, the parents of children with disabilities want what is best for their families — both now and for the years to come.”
“The ADA is a landmark law—but recently, it has been under attack,” Beto O’Rourke tweeted. “29 years after its passage, let’s build a country where Americans with disabilities have full access to education, opportunity, and the workforce, are treated with dignity, and can live to their full potential.”
Disability is personal to O’Rourke. His 38-year-old younger sister, Erin, has intellectual and developmental disabilities. She grew up in public special education classrooms in and around El Paso, TX and currently lives in a community for intellectually disabled adults. He is close to his sister and instructs his aides that “unless he’s in an interview,” he will stop everything to take her frequent calls. “Some longtime El Pasoans credit O’Rourke’s family with always proudly including Erin in all activities,” the Dallas News reported. What’s more, O’Rourke regularly mentions Erin on the campaign trail when discussing disability issues, particularly when it comes to education.
Bernie Sanders called for recommitting to “championing the rights of people with disabilities,” citing a “moral responsibility.”
“We must guarantee people with disabilities the right to live in the community; truly integrated employment that pays a living wage; affordable, accessible housing; and the right to health care, including mental health care and home and community based services and supports,” he tweeted, following up with a tweet calling to get rid of “waiting lists and means tests.”
As he did in 2016, his campaign has a dedicated page on their website for disability issues. While some of the other campaigns have pages on mental health, the Sanders campaign was the first 2020 campaign to have a dedicated page on disability rights on their website.
“We need a president who will champion expanding the rights of people with disabilities,” his website reads. “Despite the progress that has been made over the past two decades, we unfortunately still live in a world where people with disabilities have fewer work opportunities and where the civil rights of people with disabilities are not always protected and respected. People with disabilities experience much higher poverty rates than people without disabilities. As a nation, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that all Americans have the support they need to live with dignity.”
It also is important to note that people with disabilities are included on his page outlining his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. One of his organizational priorities, for example, is “increasing engagement of communities of color, women, those with disabilities, and all people historically shut out of electoral and caucus processes.”
Elizabeth Warren tweeted several statements, the first of which she spoke about her first job out of college – “teaching students with speech and learning disabilities at a public school.” She witnessed firsthand how the ADA changed the lives of the children in her classroom.
“It not only helped dismantle prejudices about Americans with disabilities, it recognized their right to live, work, and love independently,” she tweeted. Yet, she said, there is more work to be done. “As I celebrate the ADA today, I’m committing to continue the fight to protect these rights every step of the way.”
Marianne Williamson’s Instagram post and Tweet have come under fire from many in the disability community for insensitive language and her focus on visiting a sheltered workshop in Las Vegas that pays its disabled employees less than a dollar an hour. On Monday afternoon, her Instagram post was edited, removing any reference to Opportunity Village but not removing the phrase “differently abled,” a term the disability community does not use to describe themselves.
In her Instagram post, Williamson calls for people with disabilities being able to access “all educational and training programs,” including preparing children for with disabilities for “post-secondary education” and increasing funding for assistive technology.
“For 29 years Americans with disabilities have had a greater sense of dignity and respect,” Andrew Yang tweeted. “More work to be done but my family is thankful for the ADA.”
Yang is the father of two sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. The issues of early intervention and erasing stigma for people with autism is not just important to him. It’s personal. He believes so much in his Autism Intervention Program and Funding that he discusses them in person and on his website.
On his campaign website, he writes, “One of my boys is on the autism spectrum—I know how invaluable resources and intervention can be, particularly if adopted early on. Families struggle with this in very personal ways. As a country, we should provide ample resources to parents to be able to intervene to support the development of children with autism or who are exceptional in other ways. Many of these children have something unique to offer.”
Current President Donald Trump, who is running for re-election in 2020, also commemorated the anniversary.
“Today, we renew our commitment to empowering Americans with disabilities through equal access so they can achieve their full potential, and we celebrate their contributions to our great Nation,” Trump said in a proclamation. “The more than 61 million Americans who are currently living with disabilities are part of the fabric of our Nation, and the ADA helps eliminate barriers to their full participation in every community across the country. We are grateful for the ADA for helping to foster a vibrant culture of inclusivity in our Nation.”
Trump noted that the employment rate for people with disabilities has been growing recently.
“My Administration continues to encourage hiring individuals with disabilities, including through our Multi-Agency Task Force on Improving Employment for People with Disabilities,” he said in the proclamation, citing an Executive Order to increase apprenticeship opportunities for all, including people with disabilities. “This action has helped bring reforms to ineffective training and workforce development programs, better enabling Americans with disabilities to develop in-demand skills for a wide range of industries.”
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 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.
Fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member, or a close friend with disabilities. Therefore, as the 2020 candidates take to the debate stage, 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.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said, “Both including people with disabilities in your campaign and talking about this demographic at town halls and debates is the right thing to do but you don’t have to do it because it’s just the right thing to do. It also is the smart thing to do.”
Eight candidates did not publicly celebrate the ADA through a statement on their website or social media. These candidates include: Michael Bennet; Pete Buttigieg; Bill de Blasio; John Delaney; Tulsi Gabbard; John Hickenlooper; Jay Inslee; and Tim Ryan.
“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.”
Additional research conducted by Eric Ascher and Ariella Barker.
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.