by Ben Adler
It’s no surprise that members of disadvantaged or oppressed groups—minorities, gays, and atheists, for instance—will vote overwhelmingly Democratic this fall. After all, Democrats are the party of civil rights, and Democratic administrations deploy federal lawyers and appoint federal judges who support civil rights, while Republican administrations are hostile to them.
But there’s another less-noticed disadvantaged group that stands to lose as much as anyone if Mitt Romney is elected president: people with disabilities.
Thanks to workplace discrimination, disabled Americans are far more likely to be unemployed or living in poverty. Nearly 28 percent of those with disabilities ages 18 to 64 were in poverty in 2010, the website Disability Scoop reported last year, citing Census Bureau data. That was well over twice the poverty rate for the general population. And Republican-appointed judges have by and large been hostile to workplace discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Even more harmful, though, would be Romney’s plan to gut the social safety net on which disabled Americans rely.
Due to their greater medical needs, people with disabilities are more likely to be rejected for health insurance or to reach the lifetime caps on coverage imposed by insurers. Even non-elderly people with disabilities are likely to depend on Medicaid or Medicare, especially for long-term care. That’s why the Affordable Care Act, was cheered by disability advocates: It bans insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, and from putting limits on lifetime coverage, and it expands Medicaid eligibility. Romney, of course, has pledged to repeal the ACA, offering no substitute for these provisions.
But he wouldn’t stop there. The Paul Ryan budget, which Romney has embraced, would turn Medicaid into a block grant program and replace Medicare with a voucher system. That would likely leave disabled seniors with Medicaid vouchers that won’t cover their exorbitant premiums, which would be much higher for the disabled. They might well not be able to afford the coverage they need.
Just as troubling, with Medicaid as a block grant, states could be forced to kick people off the rolls, or reduce coverage during economic downturns. “Nearly half of Americans with disabilities rely on Medicaid for access to health services and supports that span from hospital to home,” Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and among Congress’s strongest supporters of disability rights, told Lean Forward via email. “These programs would be decimated, forcing more people with disabilities into institutional care, which is fiscally untenable, morally wrong, and a violation of their civil rights.
There could well be even more cuts. To satisfy the Romney/Ryan ticket’s pledges to cut taxes, increase defense spending and reduce the deficit, massive cuts in domestic discretionary spending would be needed. That likely means cuts to food stamps—a program Congressional Republicans have already said they want to slash—but also public housing and education.All three are areas that disabled Americans count on even more than the general population. A reduced federal role in education, in particular, would hurt the disabled disproportionately: One of the Washington’s main roles in education is requiring and supporting equal educational opportunities for children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). The law has never been fully funded, and its funding would likely take a further hit under a President Romney. Harold Pollack, a disability-rights expert at the University of Chicago, summed it up in an email to Lean Forward: “The Romney-Ryan Medicaid proposals would be an unprecedented step backwards in disability policy,” Pollack said.
Other than a few passing references to people with disabilities at the Democratic National Convention, the Obama campaign has not made much of an issue of disability rights. But there might be political benefits to doing so—and not just to appeal to the 54 million Americans with disabilities. A new poll (pdf) by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Laszlo Strategies found that 41 percent of respondents said they’re more likely to vote for a candidate who makes helping the disabled a national priority. Just two percent said it should not be a national priority. Perhaps that’s because so many people have experienced disability firsthand. Fifty-one percent said they, a family member, or a close friend have a disability.
Of course, the number of Americans for whom the issue is a top voting priority is likely far smaller. But highlighting the impact of Romney’s policies on those with disabilities would nicely reinforce the Obama campaign’s broader message that Romney and his party don’t care about those who are struggling. Case in point: Obama has cut a devastating commercial ADD LINK using Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comments featuring images of working Americans and retired veterans, both groups that are well-represented among those who benefit from government programs. But you know who else is among the 47 percent? People with disabilities. An image of someone in a wheelchair, or a quadruple amputee, or a blind person, seen as Romney complains about moochers who “believe that government has a responsibility to care for them,” would speak to that vast majority of Americans who think government does, indeed, have a responsibility to provide for the needy.
As Obama clearly recognizes, reminding Americans that even the healthiest free market economy will not take care of everyone, and that a decent society looks out for its most vulnerable members, is both good policy and good politics. Few groups exemplify that point better than disabled Americans.
Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation.