What Disability Leaders Want to See From 2020 Candidates

After the 2016 election, disability activists say the bar for prospective Democratic nominees has never been higher.
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Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders participate in the MSNBC Democratic Debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, on February 4th, 2016.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders participate in the MSNBC Democratic Debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, on February 4th, 2016.

On February 4th, 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off in their final debate before the New Hampshire Democratic primary. That night, Clinton's closing statement followed a script that resembled her stump speeches and previous debate appearances: She listed specific groups that experience discrimination and for whom she's spent her career fighting. Until this point in the campaign, she had listed women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans, but on that Friday night, she added "people with disabilities" to her litany.

Clinton would go on to run a campaign that set new standards for the inclusion of disability as a major political issue. She featured disabled leaders at the Democratic National Convention, gave an entire policy speech on disability inclusion, came out against paying disabled workers a sub-minimum wage, released a detailed plan about supporting autistic people, and supported better wages for caregivers, while her campaign produced document after document detailing policy goals around health-care access and disability rights. Meanwhile, Donald Trump ran the most ableist campaign in American history, from his infamous mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski to (more importantly) supporting policies that would harm disabled Americans in many ways. For the first time in my political life, I thought, disability might even swing the election.

It didn't. As we all know, Trump won, and his administration has been adversarial to disability rights in many areas, including health care, education, and the Department of Justice's reluctance to enforce rights granted by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Meanwhile, the Democratic primary for 2020 is already underway, and disability rights advocates have a message for all contenders: Clinton's 2016 efforts have set a new baseline for Democratic commitment to disability issues and engagement with disabled leaders. And because the Clinton campaign wasn't perfect on these issues, if a candidate really wants the support of the disability community this time, they'll need to do even better.

Although disability-related organizations have done voter outreach and issues advocacy for many decades, the non-partisan nature of most major organizations has precluded direct partisan action. That's beginning to change. Former President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign vowed to reach out to every possible constituency in his run for the White House, and formed a robust disability policy group. Many people on that team later went to work for the administration and laid groundwork for Clinton's efforts in 2016. As 2020's would-be nominees get to work on their teams, I reached out to people within and without Clinton's 2016 efforts to ask them what they're looking for in the 2020 campaign.

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Anastasia Somoza, a Latinx woman with cerebral palsy who now works as a disability liaison for the New York City Council, spoke at the DNC in 2016, served as a surrogate for Clinton throughout the latter part of the campaign, and introduced the candidate at Clinton's September of 2016 policy speech on disability in Orlando, Florida. Over the phone, she tells me that she had never seen a "frontrunner political candidate [like Clinton]" focus an entire speech on disability and economic inclusion.

Somoza tells me that in her own life, she's had difficulty finding work despite excellent credentials. "It's so important for candidates to be talking about the financial empowerment of people with disabilities," she says, "because that's what we need in order to live independently." Somoza wants to see candidates who really understand the crucial roles that federal programs play in providing the kinds of supports that promote independence.

Ari Ne'eman, who was executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network from 2006 to 2016 and is the author of a forthcoming book from Simon & Schuster on the history of disability in America, says over the phone that he wants Democratic candidates to make hard commitments to the disability community around key legislative items, but "the most important consideration is how candidates articulate the tremendous power of the executive branch—through the Medicaid program, through more aggressive civil rights enforcement [for disabled Americans], and through the many levers of power" that the president can command.

"We want those commitments to come in early," Ne'eman says, because "you can't hold people accountable if they don't make promises to you. Some may call it pandering, but the disability community needs candidates to pander to them—so pander early and often."

Gregg Beratan, Andrew Pulrang, and Alice Wong founded the #CripTheVote movement in 2016, arguably the most important piece of disability-related political organizing of that electoral cycle. Over email, they tell me that they want to see two things: follow-through from politicians who promise support, and more disabled people engaging with politics. "The Clinton platform on disability issues was well developed and detailed, which is a big step forward," Pulrang writes. "That may indicate that it is the new 'floor' or minimum standard for disability policy in presidential campaigns."

Pulrang emphasizes that staffing matters. "It's also worth noting that there are at least two different standards for judging a campaign's disability engagement," he says. "One is the quality, detail, and resources put into developing workable policies disabled people want. The other, though, is representation."

Rebecca Cokley—who has worked for the Obama White House, was part of the Obama campaign's disability policy team in 2008, and now runs the Disability Justice Initiative for the Center for American Progress—says she's definitely concerned with good policy, but also says that it's long past time for candidates to hire disabled people to lead on disability issues, and more generally to help highlight connections between disability and other issues.

"Make it an issue when at forums they aren't explicitly focusing on disability," Cokley writes over email. "Hire a person with a disability to write your health-care plan (since we did save the ACA), to talk about civic engagement and voting access, to serve on your transition team."

Every issue is a disability issue. Disability and disabled people should be front and center in every aspect of modern political campaigns. In 2016, we saw new highs and lows in terms of what's possible. Democrats competing in a crowded field would be wise to engage people with disability as an uncommitted, yet increasingly politically active, community.

But be careful of tokenism or simply relying on cute, inspirational videos. Disabled leaders want to be part of the process. As Cokley says, "We don't want to be in your campaign video if you never would have hired us to produce or write it."

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