There’s a saying often used by disability rights advocates to stress the importance of having disabled people at the table making decisions that will affect their lives: “Nothing about us without us.”
That idea is what set one candidate apart in the 2020 presidential race, some of those advocates said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination this week after disappointing performances in several primaries and a crushing loss in her home state of Massachusetts. But the way she crafted her disability plan will be a model for the future, according to the people who helped her build it.
“Her plan was a blueprint,” said Vilissa Thompson, a social worker and founder of disability advocacy blog Ramp Your Voice and who consulted on Warren’s disability team.
Partners, not props
Matthew Cortland tweeted his amazement last month when Warren described in a CNN town hall how every policy issue affects disabled people. And he was not alone.
“I’m in tears,” came one reply. “I’ve never heard a candidate talk about, care about, listen to and work with people with disabilities.”
Cortland, a lawyer and policy analyst who helped consult on the campaign’s disability plan, said Warren operated her campaign much the same way she talked about it on stage: in collaboration with the people who had the most stake in her positions.
“It hit me… I’m a woman with plans,” Warren said at the town hall. “I need a disability plan overall. And I thought, I’m not gonna write this myself. I’m gonna reach out to the community, to the disability communities, and say, ‘What parts do we need to be able to build that equality?’”
Warren and her campaign came up with her over 7,000-word plan, “Protecting the Rights and Equality of People with Disabilities,” with the input of a working group made up of disabled advocates and community members. She’s not the only candidate to consult disabled people, but the people in her disability group said she did it differently.
Those individuals weren’t just offering suggestions, they were building the plan themselves through the facilitation of Warren’s campaign staff, according to Rebecca Cokley, the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress. They had access to a shared document where they would type notes and make edits, collaborating to create the document that now lives on Warren’s site.
“My aim was solely to get the policy right. In order to get it right it was important to identify our knowledge gaps and ask for help,” said Molly Doris-Pierce, Warren’s national disability outreach director. She and campaign policy analyst Alexandra Wilcox facilitated the community engagement.
Cokley consulted on several 2020 campaigns’ disability plans, including for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Obama cabinet member Julián Castro. But she personally endorsed Warren and joined her campaign.
“One of the things that makes Sen. Warren’s plan stand out is actually it goes beyond just the words on the paper,” Cokley said. “Sen. Warren specifically talked about disability and her plan repeatedly. None of the other candidates have really addressed their own plan in debates, in town halls, on social media.”
Thompson also said she was particularly impressed with Warren’s dedication to listening to the voices of disabled people of color in crafting parts of the plan.
Cokley has been working on Democratic campaigns going back to John Kerry’s bid in 2004, and this election cycle is unique in its approach to disability. In the past, Cokley said, “it almost felt sort of very Dickensian” when asking to be included, “like, ‘Please, sir, can I have some more?’ … With the Warren campaign, they were looking at us as experts.”
“We were partners – not an afterthought, not props – partners,” Cortland added.
The 7,000-word proposal
Cokley said most of the 2020 campaigns she consulted with had similar foundations to address disability rights:
- Address long-term services and support within health care plans.
- Implement full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, meant to provide free public education to students with disabilities.
- Put an end to the sub-minimum wage that allows employers to pay some disabled workers at below the minimum wage.
- Change rules that keep many Social Security recipients below the federal poverty level.
“Building on that is where you really started to see the personality differences and the philosophical differences,” Cokley said.
Warren’s plan included detailed ways to address some of the problems she outlined: criminal justice, voting rights, transportation and housing, to name a few. She wanted to get rid of the rules, for example, that make some disabled people unable to afford marrying due to a reduction in benefits.
Sanders’ disability plan also received the stamp of approval from many in disability communities. It touched on many of the same issues and, in some ways, it went further than Warren’s, pledging the use of executive action to implement some of his proposals.
When Warren announced she was suspending her campaign, disabled supporters were “disappointed,” Thompson said.
“No matter how qualified a woman is, no matter how confident a woman is, it still may not be good enough,” she said. “And particularly for Elizabeth Warren to be a white woman to endure this. What does it mean for women of color like myself, and particularly, black disabled women?”
‘The community will not allow itself to be ignored’
Thompson said she’s not entirely satisfied with the remaining two frontrunners in the race. She voted for Warren in the South Carolina primary before the end of the campaign, but hasn’t decided if she’ll throw her support behind either former Vice President Joe Biden or Sanders.
“With her departure from the race, there is a noticeable and stark difference between the two frontrunners remaining,” said Lydia Brown, an associate for disability rights and algorithmic fairness at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Tech Law and Policy.
Brown said Sanders, like Warren, has a comprehensive disability plan, but Biden’s lack of attention to disability is “concerning,” Brown said. The former vice president’s campaign has not put out a comprehensive plan yet, though one may still be forthcoming. The campaign didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about a disability plan.
The disability section of Biden’s website only briefly summarizes how his other plans would impact disabled Americans. That’s a problem for Thompson.
“At this stage of the game, we see what can happen when candidates do center disabled people and our issues and allow that to be not only the blueprint but the standard going forward,” she said.
In her parting words to her staff, Warren highlighted her plan as a potential game-changer when it comes to crafting disability platforms.
“We have shown that we can build plans in collaboration with the people who are most affected. You know just one example: Our disability plan is a model for our country, and, even more importantly, the way we relied on the disability communities to help us get it right will be a more important model,” Warren said in a phone call to her staff when she announced she was leaving the race.
The advocates who worked on Warren’s policy said they hope it will serve as a model for political discussion on disability, both in the remainder of the 2020 race and in future campaigns and policy decisions.
“Our campaign was unique in our approach in that we were unafraid to seek guidance from those who our policies would impact,” said Doris-Pierce, Warren’s disability outreach director. “I can only hope this serves as a model for future campaigns; listen first, then ask questions, and then build in coalition.”
Warren assured Cokley and other advocates before her campaign ended that the plan “doesn’t stop with the campaign. The plan is a living document.” According to Cokley, Warren committed to explore implementing priorities from the plan through congressional channels.
Going forward, Thompson said, “I have incredible faith that the community will not allow itself to be ignored.”
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