July 26, 2016 marks twenty-six years since the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act — a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations, communications, and government activities. Even though a Republican signed the bill into law, the aim and enforcement of the ADA violate every tenant of the American Right’s worldview.
From policy to rhetoric, the right has for decades sought to marginalize the plight of the disabled American.
It is not clear whether this animus is conscious or unconscious, but it is unmistakable. Indeed the fiercest opposition to accommodation came from several sects from the base of the American Right. The Chamber of Commerce led the charge against structural accessibility, claiming it would be a costly headache for small businesses. While the cost of renovating is real, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that a business owner would get a tax credit for making their facility more accessible.
Also, disabilities are often times worse than headaches. However, this exposes the ludicrous claim that the free market is benevolent in how it naturally adapts to the needs of consumers. Why didn’t the free market necessitate structural accommodation before 1990? The answer goes to the heart of the free market conservative ideology: Disabled people didn’t contribute enough to the economy to warrant accommodation.
This segues into the difference in policy approach to the American Right and the American Left. The difference between the right and left’s views of the disabled is predicated on conservative intellectual opposition to the dreaded “central planning”, and their perennial admiration for the private sector.
Social Security Disability Insurance is a major source of conflict against the disabled. From my own research and personal experience from being on the program, I was able to deconstruct the arguments against SSI and SSDI.
From the beginning, conservatives felt that supplemental incomes are disincentives to economic productivity among the disabled. To this day they claim that the program is fraught with fraud and abuse. However, my research indicates that from a sample of 1,523 cases from 11 cities found that the rate of fraud was one third of one percent, most of which was related to belated discontinuation of payments and beneficiary error in understanding eligibility.
Early opposition to the SSDI and SSI programs were also predicated on the conservative’s preference for rehabilitative programs, rather than long-term subsidies. This is the crux of the right’s animus towards the disabled. However, the economic impact having a life long chronic disability from a medical condition like cerebral palsy, down syndrome or spina bifida throws a wrench into their Calvinist fantasies about personal responsibility.
Besides, since the conservatives opposed the existence of these programs, the fraud and abuse argument is a disingenuous canard.
Administrative changes about the definition of who is disabled might need to be made. For example, disability public policy should recognize the distinction between the chronically disabled and the aged disabled. The conflation of the two is the root of the problem of over accommodation from programs like SSI or parking permits.
That said, conservative opposition to programs such as these is ideological and reflexive. In many ways the argument of over accommodation or fraud is pretense for opposition to these sorts of government programs conceptually. Ultimately, the best way to accommodate the chronically disabled would be to have a monthly individual subsidy similar to SSI, yet separate from the larger Social Security program itself.
This animus is even evident in their opposition to programs that only benefit the recipient indirectly, such as a section 8 housing subsidy.
One of the more comical moments of the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries was the two Texans Rick Perry and Ted Cruz forgetting what departments of government they would see fit to eliminate. Senator Cruz said in 2016 that he wanted to eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development outright, and it was eluded to in the 2012 Republican debates. Saying that HUD should be eliminated gives no consideration to those benefiting from Section 8 Housing.
Section 8 is a program where the government pays two thirds of the beneficiary’s rent, which benefits the property owner more directly than the beneficiary. However, many conservatives would comment on the lower quality of section 8 housing, comment on how housing subsides skews their beloved free market by keeping lower quality housing on the market, or they’ll even go so far as to say this skewing effect was the cause of the 2008 housing crash, rather than collateralized debt obligation being traded as an asset in the stock market as Yanis Varoufakis explained in his book The Global Minotaur.
Like with SSI, the best way to accommodate the disabled with a housing subsidy would be to create an entirely separate section for the life-long chronically disabled that asks the beneficiary to contribute a quarter of the rent, rather than a third. If we combine the administration of the previously mentioned supplemental income subsidy with this housing subsidy, the levers of public policy could be used to mitigate the economic impacts of the life-long disability. Furthermore, there should be block grants designated for the funding of debt-free college for the disabled through grad school. Aside from those programs the lifelong disabled should be allowed to maintain a personal savings account of up to $100,000 which would not be counted against their federal supplemental income, housing, or educational subsidies.
All of these programs could then be administered at the federal level by a cabinet position known as the Secretary of Disabled Services. This would be easily assembled since many of these programs already exist, and just need to be streamlined into a more user-friendly approach. The funding for this approach could be drawn from 3-5% of the annual military budget. In so doing the military disabled, as well as the born disabled would be covered without having to depend solely on the V.A.
Of course, this would require veteran care to be combined to the cost of the defense budget rather than something separate. In other words, disabled veterans could draw more benefits from the programs I’m prescribing, which would alleviate some strain on the Veteran’s Administration as a whole.
The aim of these suggested programs is to provide a modicum of economic certainty that is otherwise denied to the disabled and their loved ones. This uncertainty of being born with a disability can manifest itself in different ways.
A report authored by Senator Tom Harkin pointed out that 28% of disabled people of all ages from 18-64 live in poverty, which is double the national average from 2013. The disabled in America still face a certain amount of economic marginalization and isolation stemming from lack of understanding by the non-disabled majority. Many conservatives would say that it would be better to allow private organizations to care for the disabled through donations. However, it is easy to learn the flaws in this approach, given that most of the history of assistance programs in the United States was through the private sector.
Kim E. Nielsen’s book A Disability History of the United States outlines the inadequacies of many private organizations to be able to understand what truly was a disability and to accommodate those they recognize as disabled. Those with mental disabilities were less likely to receive assistance than with those with severe physical disabilities. Subsidizing assistance programs by private donation only is a system that benefits the donors more — as they get a deduction — which reveals yet again the conservatives’ hostile disregard of the disabled as people, simply because of the perception that those on assistance subsidies don’t contribute to the economy.
Finally, it is necessary to address the root of this animus, the word “entitlement.”
That is what existing assistance subsidies are called. It is easy to imagine a conservative reader of my aforementioned policy prescriptions calling them, as well as my tone, entitled. To this I would retort that to describe any disabled person as economically entitled is a callous affront to their character. The term entitlement implies that the disabled have endless options beyond government assistance; it implies a level of choice that is not afforded to those born with a disability. The only way assistance programs for the disabled could accurately be called entitlements was if the word entitlement referred to the constant complaining of the “Free Market” conservative about taxation subsidizing “non production” in these assistance programs.
It seems as if these conservatives feel that taxation is a greater burden than the circumstance of having been born with or developing a chronic life long disability.