Trump Made Disability Rights a Partisan Issue. Can Biden Fix That?

Disability rights have traditionally been considered a bipartisan issue. Swift and significant action will undo the damage of the last four years.

[PHOTO: Joe Biden sits behind a desk reading his briefing]
The past four years have been terrifying for people from marginalized communities, including disabled people. President-elect Joe Biden must ensure our community sees actual progress. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In his first address as president-elect, Joe Biden pledged to “unify” a divided nation as he addressed systemic racism, health care, immigration, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people, including disabled people thrilled to hear the president-elect mention our community, celebrated his historic speech.

“We must make the promise of the country real for everybody, no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability,” Biden said Saturday evening.

Biden’s groundbreaking mention of people with disabilities was celebrated by CNN’s Jake Tapper, who described the disability community as a “political force.”

Acknowledging a community that includes 61 million people in the United States should be normal—but it isn’t. Historically, politicians have overlooked disabled people. But things changed during the 2020 Democratic primaries, when every major candidate, including Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, issued comprehensive disability policy plans.

Before the 2016 election, Donald Trump was chastised for mocking Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who has a disability, with many calling it Trump’s “worst offense.” Regrettably, Trump’s jeering of Kovaleski marked only his first of many assaults on people with disabilities.

For four years, marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, have experienced incessant attacks on our rights by Trump and the broader GOP. From repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the withdrawal of important special education protections to policies targeting immigrants with disabilities, Trump’s presidency has threatened nearly every facet of the lives of people with disabilities. The recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett was yet another assault on disability rights. Moreover, Congress—particularly the Republican members—made several attempts to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by undermining the law’s enforcement provisions.

With Biden and Harris heading to the White House, people with disabilities are hopeful that we will have an administration committed to advancing rather than attacking our rights. Biden has previously pledged to make disability rights “central to my administration’s agenda,” saying “your voices must be heard, and not just heard, but listened to, because this is about an issue that matters to every American, equality and dignity.” Recognizing us during his victory speech was an essential first step.

According to its newly released transition website, the Biden administration will prioritize four policy areas: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Each of these topics has important implications for disabled people.

In particular, people with disabilities have experienced striking disparities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including high rates of exposure, infections, and deaths. Disabled people living in congregate settings, such as group homes and skilled nursing facilities, have been significantly affected. At the same time, the Trump administration has largely ignored the needs of disabled people during the pandemic. For example, Deaf people sued the White House after multiple requests for sign language interpreters at coronavirus task force briefings were disregarded.

Biden’s COVID-19 plan for disabled people also proposes improvements to Medicaid, housing, education, and emergency management.

By contrast, Biden released two comprehensive disability policy plans during the election, including one specific to COVID-19. Biden’s plan acknowledges the numerous inequities disabled people have experienced because of the pandemic and proposes ways to prohibit discrimination by health-care providers—including the rationing of care and resources—and increase access to home- and community-based services and supports so that disabled people can remain in their communities. Biden’s COVID-19 plan for disabled people also proposes improvements to Medicaid, housing, education, and emergency management.

Biden’s main disability policy plan is also quite comprehensive. It covers a range of issues affecting disabled people, such as health care, housing, employment, voting access, education, and climate change. The plan addresses police brutality toward people with disabilities, especially disabled people of color, and promises to repeal Trump’s expansion of the “public charge” rule, which bars disabled immigrants from acquiring green cards if they are deemed likely to receive any government benefits (such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, or Social Security Disability Insurance). It also pledges to end subminimum wages for disabled employees and address discrimination against parents with disabilities in the child welfare system.

Importantly, Biden’s plan says he will appoint a director of disability policy to the Domestic Policy Council to ensure that issues affecting people with disabilities “receive the attention they deserve at the highest levels of government and are integrated in broader policy discussions.” His plan also says he will appoint a Special Envoy for International Disability Rights to ensure that foreign assistance programs advance disability rights and work to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Above all, though, Biden must appoint disabled people at all levels of leadership.

Immediately, Biden will need to address health care. Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, a case challenging the ACA’s constitutionality—and putting the health care of millions of people with disabilities in danger. Although the Court upheld the ACA in 2012 and 2015, Barrett’s addition to the bench does not bode well for the law’s fate.

The ACA has been essential for people with disabilities. In addition to preventing health insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, the ACA has improved home- and community-based services and supports for disabled people and expanded Medicaid eligibility. In fact, research indicates that the ACA’s Medicaid expansion caused employment to increase among people with disabilities. While Biden has previously vowed to build on and expand the ACA, the law’s future is uncertain, especially if the GOP holds the majority in the Senate.

Disability rights have traditionally been considered a bipartisan issue. In fact, the ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush with support from both Democratic and Republican senators. However, things have changed dramatically since Trump took office.

The past four years have been terrifying for people from marginalized communities, including disabled people. We have had our rights continuously attacked, and our needs constantly ignored. Biden will need to take swift and significant action to undo the damage caused by the Trump administration. Rather than simply go back to the days before Trump, though, Biden must ensure actual progress is made so that justice is finally realized for all.