Bernie Sanders Is the Disability Rights Candidate

It’s clear from his platform that Bernie Sanders understands that people with disabilities are confronted with daily acts of discrimination and oppression in the United States. A Sanders presidency would offer an unprecedented chance to improve the lives of disabled people across the country.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Teamsters Vote 2020 Presidential Candidate Forum December 7, 2019 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Win McNamee / Getty Images

To live in the United States as a person with disabilities is to encounter daily acts of abuse and oppression. Working disabled people can legally be paid less than $1 an hour under federal law, an appalling exemption to already inadequate minimum-wage standards. Disabled people on Social Security Income (SSI) must report any income, including gifts, every month to maintain meager amounts of coverage, and can lose their benefits by marrying. We are more likely to be poor, and more likely to become homeless — more than 40 percent of homeless people are disabled.

For the first time in awhile, several of the candidates in the Democratic presidential primary have outlined proposals to address this. Last month, Julián Castro made a big splash by releasing a platform that, among other things, would scrap discriminatory wage laws and allow disabled SSI recipients to wed without penalty. Even Pete Buttigieg, in a long document brimming with 1990s-style Clintonite rhetoric, has laid out an agenda to take the disabled community on a glide path to equality.

But there’s only one candidate with a comprehensive set of policies that would directly enhance the lives of disabled people in the United States: Senator Bernie Sanders.

Disability rights issues are woven directly into the proposals of almost every single policy document the campaign has released to date. The Sanders campaign clearly understands that disability is not simply a set of special interests to be siloed off, but a common aspect of everyday life affecting a key group of people that US policy routinely degrades, diminishes, and often oppresses.

Housing is a disability issue. Labor is a disability issue. Health care is a disability issue. Disabled people are on the front lines of climate change. And the agenda that Sanders is advancing not only recognizes that all of these issues greatly affect disabled people; it recognizes that no program or policy is good enough if it does not work for the most marginalized among us — the disabled very much included.

What Bernie’s Disability Rights Platform Looks Like

First, there’s the baseline policy. Bernie’s “Fight for Disability Rights” proposal page includes some of the essentials, like ending sub–minimum wage hiring and ratifying the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The latter — which the GOP-controlled Senate rejected in 2012, over Sanders’s opposition — asks pledging nations to pass legislation that secures equal rights for people with disabilities.

Where things get really strong is when you open up almost any other policy document on the Sanders website. Bernie’s Housing for All program targets the physical inaccessibility of housing and public transit in the United States with a set of sweeping changes. He pledges $1.48 trillion to create a national affordable housing trust fund to build, rehabilitate, and preserve 7.4 million accessible housing units. A further $70 billion would go to the long-overdue project of ensuring that the United States’ entire public-housing stock is fully accessible to people with disabilities (a goal so obviously morally necessary that many of my able-bodied friends have a hard time believing that all public housing isn’t already ADA compliant). On top of that, Sanders’s housing blueprint would push states to end exclusionary zoning practices that limit affordable, accessible housing and to make sure that more residential communities are closer to public transit.

As with most of Sanders’s policy proposals, to talk about one is frequently to talk about the goals of another. Picking up where the Housing for All platform leaves off, Sanders’s iteration of the Green New Deal proposes $2.18 trillion in grants for people to weatherize and retrofit their homes, a program that would explicitly prioritize the disabled, seniors, and the poor first. It’s the kind of policy that reads like an inverse of the status quo: rather than offering meager, means-tested programs to a few, under a Sanders presidency, the priority would be to meet the needs of the poorest and most marginalized — and then deliver universal goods for everyone else, too.

Sanders’s plan lays out a $40 billion Climate Justice Resilience Fund (CJRF) to oversee much of the preparation for future climate events and recovery from those that have already taken place. The fund would “issue block grants to states, territories, tribes, municipalities, counties, localities, and nonprofit community organizations” to carry out this work. And within the new agency, an Office of Climate Resiliency for People with Disabilities would be established — staffed and led by people with disabilities — to oversee the CJRF’s work with the disabled community and interactions with other federal agencies tasked with climate-related remits.

Finally, Sanders’s Green New Deal proposes $300 billion to boost public transportation ridership by 65 percent within ten years and make public transit more accessible. Jobs created under the Green New Deal, it says, would be made available first to a number of marginalized groups, including people with disabilities.

Justice for People With Disabilities

Disabled people know that our justice system is extremely punitive and byzantine, particularly for people with mental disabilities. Sanders’s proposals attack this head-on. In his “Justice and Safety for All” platform, the Vermont senator begins by pledging to put laws in place that require police to take training on how to interact with people with mental and physical disabilities.

Sanders vows to “reverse the criminalization of disability,” in part by directing the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division to make cases of law enforcement discrimination against disabled people a top priority. His proposal would create an Office of Disability within the Department of Justice, focused on ensuring ADA compliance throughout the criminal justice system. The Office of Disability would also oversee changes throughout the justice system, like expanding “compassionate release” for prisoners with disabilities, investing in diversion programs as alternatives to the court and prison system for disabled people, reforming prisons to ensure accessibility, and guaranteeing free medical care throughout the prison system.

These changes would begin to undo the decades of policies that have punished people simply for having disabilities. While decarceration must still be the ultimate goal, Sanders’s platform is the most robust of any candidate when it comes to safeguarding the rights of disabled people facing the justice system.

Medicare for All and Abolishing Medical Debt

The United States’ main public health-care programs, Medicare and Medicaid, throw up barriers to enrollment that leave many disabled people excluded and consign them to the private insurance market.

If you were born disabled, chances are that it will take you an incredible amount of time to attain the work credits needed to qualify for SSDI Medicare — leaving you at the mercy of the Medicaid standards of the state you live in (if you can even qualify for that). Say you are able to get onto Medicare or Medicaid. Countless services still aren’t covered — principally Long-Term Care, a term for a variety of assistive and home-based care services that many disabled people need just to live. And for those on the private market, many people with disabilities are often the very definition of what insurers call a “high-risk pool” — and, as a result, are even more likely than the average person to shoulder huge sums of medical debt.

Sanders’s Medicare for All Act of 2019 would knock down each of these barriers. His bill would create a single, universal payer, eliminating the need for private insurance for those currently on it and eliminating the need for supplemental long-term care coverage or payments for those on public programs. Instead of onerous and eccentric annual enrollment periods, we would have one program that covers every resident of the United States, with no premiums, co-pays, or deductibles.

Disabled people on SSI or SSDI would no longer have to worry that going back to work might jeopardize their Medicaid or Medicare. They, and everyone else, would simply be covered. The current maze of plans, programs, middlemen, and interlocutors, all adding endless administrative time and endless confusion and work to the lives of many disabled and ill people, would come to a halt. And if groups like ADAPT or ACT UP needed to mobilize to expand the program or its coverage, they would have countless potential allies, all unified under the same program.

Sanders’s bill does opt for a four-year transition period, rather than the two-year language in Pramila Jayapal’s House legislation. But Sanders’s bill would still offer a number of immediate benefits to disabled people if passed.

Currently, new SSDI applicants must wait two years from the date the government certifies they are disabled before they can enroll in Medicare — an unconscionable policy that can literally be a death sentence. Supporters praised Julián Castro’s plan for its pledge to end this waiting period. But those same supporters may be surprised to learn another, already existing piece of legislation does the same thing: Sanders’s Medicare for All Act.

The Best Candidate on Disability Rights

Last month, prominent disability rights activist Ady Barkan made headlines for endorsing Senator Elizabeth Warren in the primary, principally due to his belief that Warren supports his vision of Medicare for All. As a disabled woman and a staunch supporter of Medicare for All, I respectfully but absolutely disagree with Barkan’s assessment.

Recently, Warren released a document admitting she would fight for a public option before Medicare for All — placing her health-care policy closer to Pete Buttigieg’s or Joe Biden’s than Sanders’s. This is a pattern for Warren — and I have yet to see her truly take any of the political demands of the disabled seriously.

A Sanders presidency offers an unprecedented possibility for the rights and equality of disabled people in America. Not only is Sanders offering what so many of us demand — a seat at the table, and a chance to directly change the policies and programs that oppress us — he is demonstrating, with every new policy detail, an absolute commitment to making sure we’re treated as true members of society, not the hidden-away public charges that US policy usually regards us as.

There is more to be done, and there will always be more to win. But the only candidate that appears to care — the only candidate that really, truly appears to be listening to us — is Bernie Sanders.