Former vice president Joe Biden released his much-anticipated disability policy plan last Thursday. In fact, he released two plans: one for general policy and one addressing how the Covid-19 pandemic affects disabled Americans. Disability rights advocates have been deeply concerned for months about the lack of attention Biden has shown to disability policy priorities—most recently using the hashtag AccessToJoe on social media to try to push the campaign. Biden and his staff have been tight-lipped on the contents of the plan. Many disability rights advocates who contributed to other primary candidates’ plans felt boxed out. Given the uncertainty and secrecy, the disability community did not know what to expect from Biden’s plan or if he would even release a plan at all.
To their surprise, Biden’s disability policy plan is good.
While his plan isn’t as ambitious as those put forward by former rivals Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it addresses many of the major policy goals of the disability community. It would end subminimum wages for disabled workers, review state guardianship laws, and tackle racial disparities in special education. Rebecca Cokley, the director of the Center for American Progress’s Disability Justice Initiative, praised the plan, saying it “shows a steadfast commitment to the values laid out in the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. While there has been so much damage perpetrated by the Trump administration that needs critical attention, it’s also exciting to see attention to new ideas like accessible childcare and entrepreneurship. We look forward to further details and dialogue about the vice president’s agenda to improve the lives of 61 million Americans.”
Before Biden released his plan, many activists were concerned that he might embrace the worst parts of Senators Kamala Harris’s and Amy Klobuchar’s mental health plans: forced medication and more money for involuntary, long-term hospitalization. Instead, Biden’s plan supports increased access to voluntary psychiatric treatment. Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, a mental health advocate who helped shape Sanders’s plan, commended the move. “The Biden disability plan on mental health and in general when we apply other parts to it, emphasizes voluntary treatment and autonomy,” she told The Nation.
The plan also calls for Housing First, a strategy based on the idea that homeless people need a safe and stable living situation before they can deal with more complex issues like addiction and mental illness. Biden’s embrace of Housing First is refreshing. In contrast, President Donald Trump has said on multiple occasions that the solution to homelessness is the construction of “mental institutions”—a chilling call to return to a practice disability rights activists fought hard to end.
Matthew Cortland, a grassroots disability rights activist and lawyer who worked closely with Warren’s primary campaign, lauded Biden’s general disability plan. He was especially enthused about proposed changes to Social Security; one reform he highlighted would grant marriage equality to the disability community. Currently, disabled people, including Cortland, lose Medicaid, which they rely on to survive, if they legally marry. “I want to thank you for promising to work to tear down the barriers that keep us from enjoying the same legal recognition of our love that you & [Jill Biden] enjoy and celebrate,” he declared on social media.
But Cortland said Biden’s “Covid-19 disability response plan is roughly equivalent to your car being on fire and your mechanic suggesting a plan to replace the brakes, rotate the tires, and change the oil.” In a statement to The Nation, Cortland pointed out a glaring problem: The plan would guarantee personal protective equipment (PPE) to care workers but not to the disabled people they support. Evidence indicates that widespread mask adoption is vital to slowing down the pandemic, so why guarantee PPE only for providers? Cortland also said that Biden’s plan overlooks the need for specialized PPE for some disabilities and the fact that some disabled people may not be able to wear masks at all. “It is my sincere and fervent hope that Joe Biden will partner with disability policy experts to avoid any further such oversights going forward.”
Biden made a surprise appearance during a Zoom briefing rolling out the disability policy plan on Thursday. Unfortunately, he immediately shoved his foot into his mouth. He claimed, bafflingly, “Everyone has some form of disability, some more severe than others.” Actually, most people do not have a disability. At another point, he stressed that disabled people “should not be defined by [our] disabilities.” These are sentiments that people within the contemporary disability rights community find trite or even insulting. Stephanie Woodward, an icon of the 2017 protests to save Medicaid, tweeted, “WHO THE FUCK IS ADVISING HIM?” in response to Biden’s comments. During and after the briefing, half a dozen disability rights leaders, who asked not to be named, pointed out to one another his unforced errors in calls and messages. Had Biden consulted community leaders about his speech, he would have learned that such statements would be poorly received.
That said, despite the awkwardness of his remarks, Biden’s unannounced appearance on the call was a sign of respect. Maria Town, the president of the American Association of People With Disabilities and a former Obama White House staffer, told The Nation, “I was extremely thrilled to see that the vice president was actually on the call. It wasn’t announced he would be. When I was working at the White House, the most valuable resource we had as staffers was the president’s time. I think the same is true for Vice President Biden’s campaign. The most valuable thing a campaign has is the president’s time. So to see him on the call for 15 minutes was a really big deal.”
The choice of speakers also reflected a lack of awareness and would have easily been addressed had Biden’s campaign engaged with the disability community while planning the event. Senator Tammy Duckworth made perfect sense; she consistently champions disability rights legislation in the Senate. Violinist Itzhak Perlman and America’s Next Top Model champion Nyle DiMarco, however, made less sense. They are celebrities with disabilities, not policy experts. The Biden campaign did not answer whether Perlman or DiMarco had worked on the plan as of press time.
Many community leaders, including Cortland, said they were eager to work for the Biden campaign if given the opportunity. But the campaign has been slow to act. It only recently began assembling a disability policy working group. There was none to advise on the disability plan as it was formed, according to multiple sources. Biden does yet not have a disability policy expert or disability liaison on staff. One disability rights leader, who asked not to be named, told The Nation, “The process of [Biden’s disability plan] worked differently than other campaigns, who were more forthcoming with their plans and ideas. There were a lot of disability leaders who would have been honored to be a part of that plan and the rollout.” Multiple leaders The Nation spoke with emphasized that Biden has a lot of catching up to do on authentic community engagement.
The lack of outreach to the disability community is particularly frustrating because the Biden disability plan calls for greater disabled representation in government. His campaign is not yet consistent with the goals of his own disability plan.
Community members and leaders want to work with and advise the Biden campaign. Town told The Nation, “I view the policy rollout as the beginning. I do not view it as the sum of the Biden campaign’s engagement with the disability community. I’m looking forward to the campaign doing more and hiring more staff with disabilities for his campaign to mirror the call for more government employees and contractors with disabilities in the plan.”
Biden still has some way to go to win over the disability rights community, but his plan is a promising start. “What we want to see,” Town said, “is genuine, earnest engagement with [disability] community advocates across the country.”