A Disability Agenda for the Midterm Elections
By Frank Bowe
The November 7 “midterm” is a change election. Disability advocates raising issues with candidates for office – especially U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate seats – are discovering that campaigns are paying attention. The next three weeks are critical. By reaching out now -- volunteering, showing up at campaign events, calling in to radio and TV talk shows, writing letters to the editor – our people can place our issues on the table. I know first-hand that office holders long remember constituent concerns that surface during campaigns. The old adage is very true – a friend in need is a friend indeed. Candidates in hotly contested races are “friends in need” – and they will greatly appreciate our help now. Later, once they are in office, they will remember that we were there for them when they needed us.
Back in mid-August, I wrote a piece previewing the Fall elections for the Justice For All (JFA) website. Now, with the election much closer, I update that story and offer some suggestions for issues that advocates might raise with candidates for national office.
In the JFA story, I offered my opinion that advocates should examine each campaign individually, on a non-partisan basis. There are Republicans and Independents who are supportive of our goals. We need to avoid simplistic and reflexive actions such as reaching out only to Democrats.
The most recent snapshot of the national picture is this. In the U.S. House of Representatives, 40 races are competitive. That’s just 10% of the total (435 seats). Of the 40 races, 33 are considered to be vulnerable for Republicans and 7 are seen as vulnerable Democratic seats. For Democrats to take control of the House in January, a net change of 15 seats is required. The number of competitive races is much larger than that, suggesting that a party change in the House is possible. The situation in the Senate is different. While it is true that a net shift of 6 seats from Republican to Democratic would return the Democrats to power in the Senate, only 8 Republican seats seem to be vulnerable (vs. 3 Democratic seats).
For Americans with disabilities, this change election holds much promise. We need to seize the day to push our agenda.
Other groups are active. Organized labor is spending $40 million on voter education and turnout, especially in swing states such as Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Business interests, too, are concentrating on those states and on key Congressional Districts.
What is our agenda? Different people will advance different views. For me, it is a refocusing of policy and resources on long-neglected domestic issues. Here are a few.
1. Medical Insurance. Americans with lifelong medical conditions (disabilities) should have lifelong medical insurance. Today, fewer than half have private health insurance. Many rely on Medicaid and/or Medicare. Our nation should aim for a seamless system assuring medical insurance.
2. Employment. The key to the American Dream, for most of us, is a good job. While many people with disabilities who possess a college diploma and/or other training have benefited from the non-discrimination and reasonable-accommodation provisions of title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, others with less education and training need more support. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report identified more than 100 federal disability employment-related programs, most small, that were poorly coordinated. Again, we need a seamless system. The country needs to make it a priority – especially now as many aging Baby Boomers prepare to retire – to educate and train working-age people with disabilities for employment.
3. Housing. We need accessible and affordable housing. People need a place to live near a job in order to accept an offer for employment. It has to be an accessible home or apartment. And it must be affordable.
4. Television and the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently has acted to weaken the commitment to captioning on TV. We need to reverse its latest decisions. It is long past time, too, for video description on television. Meanwhile, more and more, the Internet and specifically broadband communications are “the” way Americans seek and exchange information. Congress has debated bills that would take some very positive steps toward accessibility on the web. Nothing has been enacted, though. We need to finish the job.
There are more, of course. Issues vary from state to state, and even Congressional District to Congressional District.
What matters to me is not so much whether advocates press the same agenda items as I do, but rather that they get involved – now. People should show up at campaign rallies and ask questions. They should call in to radio talk shows. They should volunteer to help out in the campaigns.
There are only three weeks to go to November 7. Let’s make them three weeks to remember.
To keep up with the ever-changing electoral landscape, I suggest two wonderfully helpful resources. The first is an election guide in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/washington/2006ELECTIONGUIDE.html?currentDataSet=senANALYSIS. The second is a similar resource, this one by the Washington Post: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/elections/keyraces/map/
Frank Bowe led the 1977 nationwide protest that gave us section 504, worked with Justin Dart and others on ADA, and helped to make TV captioning available everywhere. A professor at Long Island's Hofstra University, his newest book is Making Inclusion Work (Prentice Hall, 2005). Read his other articles for Ragged Edge Online, The Midterm Elections and Us, Disability Meets the Boom and
The Time to Rise Will Come Again.