With Republicans set to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January, the disability community is worried about potentially catastrophic repercussions for abortion rights, health care and social services.
“We will continue to fear every election where major seats may be up for grabs that could change the political landscape for disabled folks,” said Leslie Templeton, co-founder of the Disabled and Pro-Choice Coalition.
Republicans have made it clear that they want to undo aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act, including the cap on insulin prices for Medicare beneficiaries. GOP leaders have also suggested cutting disability safety nets like Social Security rather than strengthening them ― all while Americans are facing an ongoing pandemic that increasingly is being ignored by policymakers, noted Matthew Cortland, a senior fellow at the polling firm Data for Progress.
Meanwhile, Republicans are going after abortion rights nationwide, which Templeton said was a particular concern for many in the disability community ahead of the midterms. Access to abortions disproportionately affects the disability community: Research shows that disabled people are at higher risk for complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and a 2017 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that disabled people were nearly three times more likely to experience sexual assault than non-disabled people.
“I think people are really passionate about [abortion access], especially within the disability community, because our lives are at risk, our well-being is our risk, and it’s criminalizing our bodies,” Templeton said.
Five states had abortion-related ballot initiatives this year. While each state voted in favor of reproductive rights, disability advocates point to those battles as a warning of future threats.
And with the GOP’s recent takeover of the House, the threat is much more real. On Monday ― before Republicans solidified their win of the House ― President Joe Biden said that unless Democrats maintained the majority, there wouldn’t be enough votes to pass legislation to codify abortion rights formerly protected by Roe v. Wade.
The office of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who is set to be the next speaker, did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
In the two years since President Donald Trump left office, the Biden administration has worked hard to undo his damage, particularly to his “hollowing out of federal agencies,” said Amber Smock, director of advocacy at Access Living, an organization that provides services to and advocates for disabled people.
“My concern is that two years from now, all of that work could go down the drains,” Smock said.
Democrats maintained control of the Senate, and Biden is only halfway through his term. While a major catastrophe was averted, disabled people still aren’t in the clear: A Republican majority in Congress could compromise efforts made to protect policies that benefit disabled people, Cortland said.
“Despite one in four American adults having a disability, we are considered disposable to far too many elected leaders and policymakers,” Cortland said. “I think we narrowly avoided a worst-case scenario in which the worst sorts of fascist, ableist policies would have been enacted by MAGA extremists. But for me, we are still very much in danger.”
How Republicans Evolved Backward On Disability Rights
Cortland said the Republican Party has changed over the years on disability support.
Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was instrumental in pushing for disability rights and policies when he was in office from 1969 to 1996. As the Senate majority leader at that time, Dole joined with Democrats in a bipartisan effort to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which Republican President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990.
Over the past few years, Republican lawmakers have tried to scale back the monumental disability rights law. In 2017, Republicans proposed the ADA Education and Reform Act, which disability and civil rights advocates said could weaken the ADA.
Republicans aren’t just threatening policies that protect the disability community ― they are also mocking accessibility in general, said Templeton, who has spoken about disability and abortion at the White House. In July, for example, Vice President Kamala Harris provided an image description of herself during a roundtable discussion, an act that sparked praise from the disability community and mockery from Republicans.
Last month, disability advocates criticized Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and members of the media for ableist comments about Democratic candidate and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s use of closed captioning after he experienced a stroke. In September, retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) attacked Fetterman for not debating his opponent due to health reasons, labeling him “too sick” to serve as a senator.
Trump has made fun of Biden’s stutter. (Notably, disabled people also have called out Democrats for making ableist comments about Trump, such as describing him as “mentally ill” and participating in the #TrumpIsNotWell hashtag.)
“We are voting for our lives here.”
“I think it’s a big 180,” Templeton said of Republicans’ insensitivity to the disability community. “It’s wild to me [that] the same party that helped sign [the ADA] into law are now the ones that are kind of advocating for its dismantling, or [mocking] the basic principles of accessibility.”
Attempts to chip away at disability rights continued through the Trump administration, with attempts to gut government-funded programs like Medicaid, which provides disabled people with access to a range of medical and long-term care services at a lower cost than private insurance. Smock noted that this was another reason disabled people were anxious about the midterms and the possibility of Republicans taking control of one or both chambers of Congress.
“Republicans have abandoned their historical position of support for disability rights, and are now a party that wants to defund Social Security and the Social Security Administration, which provides these vital benefits for disabled Americans,” Cortland said.
Templeton said that it feels like the GOP doesn’t see disabled people as a part of it, especially given the ways Republicans have mocked the community and labeled disabled people as lazy or a burden on society for being on Medicare or welfare. She called on politicians to prioritize disability justice in their campaigns and listen to disabled people in the process.
“We are voting for our lives here. If you prove yourself to be an ally, we will show up for you,” Templeton said.
Is There Hope?
Despite the GOP’s move away from disability advocacy, there are now more progressive candidates than ever who are centering disability in their platforms, said Patrick Cokley, chief of organizing, advocacy and learning at Civic Influencers, a nonprofit that aims to increase civic power of young people.
Stacey Abrams, a popular figure on the left who ran for governor of Georgia twice, led a campaign that centered disabled Georgians, such as with her promise to end Georgia’s waiting list for in-home services and to ensure community-based living. She lost her second gubernatorial bid to incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month.
Other candidates with strong disability policies won: Fetterman defeated Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race.
Smock said that Fetterman is more likely to understand health care policy problems that might come up in Congress, with a much-needed perspective into the lives of disabled Americans who have to navigate the health care system every day.
“That’s why lived experience matters,” Smock said. “It’s not about wearing a T-shirt, and it’s not about putting a hashtag out there. It’s about going through what makes everyday people’s lives difficult, and if we know our elected officials do that, then we’re going to trust them more that they actually might make decisions that matter to people with disabilities.”
The next few years will be crucial in working with federal agencies and state leadership to advocate for disability protections, Smock said, noting that work at the state level is a great proving ground to show that something would work nationwide.
“Build the infrastructure, advocate that federal agencies have knowledgeable staff, and initiatives that work for people with disabilities so that if the barometer swings the other way and an administration that doesn’t think disability rights are important comes in, then there will at least be a building of the infrastructure and the capacity to make it work,” she said.
Cokley, who is disabled himself, said the needs of disabled people tend to be consistently overlooked by candidates, even though one in four Americans has a disability.
“The way we approach disability is always as if we’re talking about this minority, but it’s just not the case,” Cokley said. “We need every elected official to start taking disability very seriously and stop trying to effectively disenfranchise a large number of Americans because they think that it’s a tinier group.”