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Civil Liberties

Hillary Clinton’s Policies For Disabled Americans Prove She’s Progressive

When Donald Trump took to the stage in South Carolina last November and made fun of a disabled New York Times reporter, he won my vote…for Hillary Clinton.

It wasn’t just that Trump’s behavior was appalling. No, what turned me over to Clinton is that, in the aftermath of Trump’s insult, she began running the most progressive presidential campaign on disability rights issues in U.S. political history. What’s more, once you start looking at her policies across the board, a pattern emerges. Hillary Clinton believes that government can help vulnerable and marginalized individuals. She listens to how such individuals describe their needs and then supports the best policies to meet those needs. It’s a progressive vision worth cheering, but it’s also a truth about her campaign that you might have missed.


Disability rights are not a niche issue. One in five Americans identify as disabled and all Americans are closely connected to someone who is or will be disabled. Disabled Americans are the country’s largest minority, and that’s why Trump’s nastiness matters politically.

As gaffes go, Trump’s capering performance was epic. While there are, sadly, plenty of people who seemed not to mind his insultapalooza tour against Muslims, Mexicans and women, disabled people occupy a different space in our culture than other marginalized groups. Even conservative white folks have disabled individuals in their families. Making fun of disabled people firmly belongs in the realm of schoolyard bullies. Once the general campaign got started, Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC, pounced with two ads on the incident, followed by an AP story on the issue. While politically useful, the focus on the one awful incident misses two bigger stories. Trump’s record on disability is terrible; Clinton’s is outstanding.

Trump routinely turns to anti-disability language when insulting people. The earliest example I tracked down was in 2004, when he referred to a critic using the r-word. The most recent was a few weeks ago, when he responded to Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s criticism by tweeting the ageist slur, “She’s lost her mind.” The Trump University lawsuit alleged that, under his brand, “experts” taught would-be real estate moguls to exploit the “completely disabled.” In his business dealings, Trump has been regularly sued for ADA violations. He has consistently linked autism and vaccines, a discredited theory linked to both child abuse and public health crises. When it comes to affirmative plans, Trump once told an autistic adult she’ll be happy with his jobs plan for people with disabilities, but has never released any details.


The unemployment rate for disabled workers in 2015 was 10.7%, more than twice the overall unemployment rate. Clinton has a plan, which she laid out in her campaign’s answers to a survey hosted by the non-profit Respectability. She wrote, in part:

Far too often, persons with disabilities are kept out of our workforce simply because they do not have access to opportunities that ensure they are on equal footing with their counterparts applying for jobs, and because businesses remain uneducated about the incredible set of skills PwDs bring to bear across industries.

She then listed programs: Transition to Independence Act. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Autism Works Initiative. She links the need for expanding mental health resources to improving employment for people with disabilities. Ending support for sub-minimum wage. Tax credits for hiring Veterans. These are not programs developed by her campaign, but reflect ideas emerging from the disability rights community.


Many of the best resourced and most visible disability rights groups are fairly conservative in terms of their mission: They tend to serve white parents of children with disabilities or come from major institutions. But when Clinton released her plan to help people with autism and their families last January, she met with countless groups from across the autism rights world. Yes, she took meetings with Autism Speaks, the giant $60-million annual budget organization that many autistic individuals now hate, but she also sat down with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the group founded to make sure that there was nothing about autism developed without autistic people.


Last April, Clinton came out in support of the Disability Integration Act, which divides typically liberal groups. It provides for Long Term Services and Supports so that people with disabilities can live in communities rather than institutions like nursing homes. The nursing home industry has plenty of lobbying clout and advocates within the Democratic Party and parent movements. Initially, language supporting the DIA was left out of the DNC platform draft. The National Disability Leadership Alliance wrote a letter expressing their disappointment (they also sent one to the RNC) and organized a petition. Disability experts with the campaign joined with the outside pressure, and now the section on disability rights includes the DIA-related line, “We will protect and expand the right of Americans with disabilities to get the accommodations and support they need to live in integratedcommunity settings.”

Moreover, the convention itself will feature three disabled speakers from diverse backgrounds. Tom Harkin, the former senator from Iowa, is slated to talk on the 26th Anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he helped to move through Congress.


This progressive set of policies on disability didn’t come out of the void. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was way ahead of Clinton’s on disability, putting together a great team of advisors and releasing a terrific set of policy recommendations. Over the last eight years, many of those policies have been put into effect. The movement itself has developed, working hard to diversify to include people with all kinds of disabilities from all communities—and it still has a long way to go on. Clinton’s positions on disability reflect a broader progressive governing philosophy. Clinton was recently commended for offering a “quiet policy lure” to millions of unpaid caregivers via tax breaks. I’m glad that disability entered her speeches in February (the Friday before the New Hampshire primary) and has stayed on her radar ever since, even if most people only notice Trump’s terrible conduct.

Plenty of people on the left are skeptical of Clinton. Some of this is the power of 25 years of demonizing narratives. Her foreign policy represents the continuation of the status quo, and she, like most major Democrats, is too cozy with corporate interests. But having watched her disability rights policies develop over the last year, I believe that as president she will work hard to advance the needs of my community. Better yet, she’ll hire good people to do the work. Asthe DNC continues, I'm excited about the progressive potential of a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency.

 David M. Perry is a journalist who covers disability rights. His work also focuses on violence and criminalization, and he's currently writing a book currently called Disability Is Not a Crime, expected fall 2017 from Beacon Press. Find his work at How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter.

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