This year marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark disability rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These three decades have seen significant improvements in protections for persons with disabilities and steps toward ensuring that all people, regardless of ability, have access to vital services and opportunities, including employment, housing, education, transportation, and voting.
Despite this progress, however, there is much work to be done to achieve the ADA’s goals of equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities. I will fight to expand accessibility, protect the rights of those with disabilities, and ensure that people with disabilities are able to live fully integrated lives.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of ability, and yet people with disabilities still face significant disadvantages in obtaining competitive employment. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice the rate for able-bodied individuals. There are federal loopholes that enable certain people with disabilities to be paid sub-minimum wages despite the ADA’s ban on discrimination in employment. We must do better to ensure that people with disabilities can find gainful employment with dignified wages that pay their bills.
I am calling for a national living wage, tied to inflation, so that no one has to work more than one job just to pay the bills. This includes ending the policy of allowing sub-minimum wages for people with disabilities. I believe that we must make workplaces more supportive and accessible to people with disabilities and end punishing wage discrimination. That’s why I support the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act which will end sub-minimum wage practices and provide funding for businesses and public agencies to create accessible, supportive, and integrated workplace environments. I also support the Disability Employment Incentive Act to extend tax credits to businesses to encourage the hiring of individuals with disabilities and support modifications to make workplaces integrated and accessible.
In addition to making workplaces accessible, inclusive, and integrated, we must provide support for those who want to enter the workforce. Paid leave is important to ensuring that people with disabilities and their families have full access to employment opportunities. This is why I support paid family and medical leave for all employees. No one should have to choose between their employment or taking care of themselves or a loved one.
We also need to reform the federal programs that disincentivize work and too often trap people with disabilities in poverty. People with disabilities should neither be punished for working nor be forced to live in or at the edge of poverty if they are unable to work. I support repealing the “benefits cliff” for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) which causes people with as little earned income as $1131 per month to lose 100% of their SSDI benefits. The benefits cliff disincentivizes employment and forces individuals to choose between working and vital benefits they may need to survive. I support replacing the benefits cliff with a gradual and humane phase out of benefits as individuals achieve higher earned incomes. We must also reform the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program to raise the benefit level and raise the allowed asset amounts. Currently, SSI benefits are below the poverty level, and the asset limits are so low that individuals with disabilities are penalized for saving money or getting married. We need to reform these programs to support the goals of the ADA to maximize independent living and full participation.
I will also fight to expand insurance coverage for long-term supports and services. Too often, this vital healthcare is not covered by standard healthcare plans, and people with disabilities are forced to purchase supplemental insurance or pay out of pocket to cover their basic needs if they don’t qualify for Medicaid. This amounts to a tax on people with disabilities. We must make sure that everyone has access to the care they need, without having to pay exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses or purchase expensive supplemental insurance to cover basic needs.
Both in the Fifth and nationwide, we are facing an affordable housing crisis, which disproportionately affects people with disabilities who often have very low incomes and need not just affordable but accessible housing. To address this affordability crisis, I am calling for a $75 billion dollar investment in public housing, to build new units and update existing public housing. I am also calling to expand Section 8 housing choice vouchers to enable lower-income individuals and their families to move into private housing. We must ensure that this investment improves accessibility in existing units and builds new accessible units in integrated areas.
We must also invest in education for people with disabilities. Our public school system is underfunded on many fronts, but nowhere is this more shameful than in education for students with disabilities. When the IDEA Act was passed in 1975, the government recognized its obligation to assure equal access to a quality education for students with disabilities, and committed to providing 40% of the funds needed to provide that quality education. However, the government has consistently fallen short of its obligation, and now the federal government pays less than half of what it originally promised. This is unconscionable. That’s why I support the IDEA Full Funding Act to fulfill the government’s obligation to make sure that all students with disabilities have access to a quality education.
Nationwide, our infrastructure and public transportation is in need of significant investment and updating. We must ensure that all public transportation is accessible and expand surface transportation services including paratransit so that individuals with disabilities can exercise their right to mobility.
We must also address the violence faced by the disability community, both from private individuals and law enforcement. Police violence vastly disproportionately affects people with disabilities. Estimates suggest that between one quarter to one half of those killed by police each year have a disability. This violence must end. I have a plan to drastically curtail police violence and invest in community mental and behavioral health first responders. Instead of police, these first responders would respond to non-violent or non-criminal calls for help or mental health crisis scenarios. And unlike police, they are trained in health care and de-escalation. Communities that use mental health first responders respond to high volumes of calls for help and significantly reduce police interactions, and therefore the risk of police violence.
People with disabilities are also more likely to face domestic and sexual violence. Data suggests that people with disabilities are three times as likely to experience sexual assault than able-bodied people, and one survey found that 7 in 10 people with disabilities have experienced some type of intimate partner violence. These horrific numbers must be a call to action for all representatives to combat violence against people with disabilities. We must fund survivor services to ensure that those services are accessible, inclusive, and tailored to individuals with disabilities.
These are some of the ways that I will fight for the rights and benefits of all people with disabilities. I am committed to making sure that accessibility is a key consideration for all legislation.