Biden can be the best president on disability rights or be bipartisan, not both

There is a limit to how much the president can work with Republicans, no matter what he says, and the facts prove it. We’re not in the age of McCain any longer

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Tuesday 27 July 2021 18:22


People with disabilities had a fortunate dilemma that was rarely available to them during last year’s Democratic presidential primary: They could pick from a variety of candidates who had put out comprehensive policies on disability. Progressives like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as more mainstream Democrats like Pete Buttigieg and then-Senator Kamala Harris, all had plans that focused on healthcare, promoting home and community-based services as opposed to institutions and ending sub-minimum wage labor.

The one exception to this rule was Joe Biden. Throughout the primary, Biden’s disability plan was missing in action, likely a product of the fact that as the de facto frontrunner, he didn’t feel a need to court interest groups. He also frustrated one disability rights activist when he touched his face.

Thankfully, Biden turned this deficit around and released a comprehensive policy on disability, which, if passed, could make him one of the best presidents for disability rights, surpassing Barack Obama and making him on par with George H W Bush, who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At the same time, as is the case with much of his rhetoric, Biden seems married to a bygone era of bipartisanship. On Monday, during his address commemorating the 31st anniversary of the ADA, which he voted for as a Senator, he highlighted the bipartisan nature of the law’s passage.

“Perhaps most importantly, we did it together,” he said. “This was a Democratic bill signed by a Republican president.”

It is true that the law’s initial passage united people from various political factions, from the patrician New England Republican Bush to conservative Republicans like Bob Dole and liberal Democratic Senators like Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin. The problem is that era does not exist anymore. Dole, who was disabled after serving in the Second World War, is long gone from the Senate and John McCain, Biden’s friend who was disabled during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is now deceased.

In their stead, disabled Republicans look more like Madison Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, but has defended paying disabled people below minimum wage (he’s since said in a hearing last week even though he doesn’t believe in a federal minimum wage, all citizens should be treated fairly) and who infamously lied about being a Paralympian. The bipartisan comity between disabled veterans Dole and then-Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye has been supplanted by Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw, who lost his eye in Afghanistan, saying Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq, agreed with “the destruction of America.

Even before then, Republicans have shown how little they regard the rights of disabled people. In 2012, when the Senate was voting to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it failed, despite the fact that Dole returned to lobby for it on the chamber’s floor. Similarly, in 2017, disability rights activists staged massive protests in the halls of the Senate to oppose attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which they feared would gut Medicaid. Of course, this was compounded by the election of Donald Trump, who regarded the Covid-19 pandemic as only something that “affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems and other problems.”

At the same time, Biden has proposed a bold agenda on disability. During his address Monday, he touted his proposal to spend $400 billion expanding home and community-based services, which allows disabled and elderly people to access care in their homes rather than institutions or nursing homes. He’s also pledged to end sub-minimum wage labor. Similarly, his campaign pledged to lift the benefit level for Supplemental Security Income to 100 percent of the federal poverty level (it is currently 74 percent of it).

The problem is that few Republicans in Congress support these initiatives, to the point that Democrats are putting home and community-based services in their reconciliation bill to sidestep a filibuster. Similarly, while some Republicans might individually support ending sub-minimum wage labor, many support keeping it in place. The divide transcends the typical MAGA-moderate divide in the GOP, as was seen when Senators Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton’s alternative minimum wage proposal would have preserved the practice.

Furthermore, many disability rights activists are alarmed by the deluge of state laws that would curb voting, which they saw might restrict their rights. But Biden has so far not budged on removing the filibuster in the Senate.

Biden’s proposals for disabled people are indeed quite bold and they are more comprehensive than almost anything people with disabilities have seen a president propose. But they will all be rendered meaningless if he prioritizes bipartisanship over results.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in