On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton appeared before a crowd in Florida to make a policy speech on a subject that rarely gets this level of dedicated attention: Economic empowerment for the disability community. With headlines like CNN's "Clinton ignores Trump, delivers speech on helping disabled," it was clear that the media didn't really know what to do with this development, treating Clinton's opponent, rather than the substance of the speech, as the news.
The disability community is still very much treated as a niche or specialized interest, despite the fact that the Census estimates some 20 percent of the population is disabled and a recent Rutgers study found that one-sixth of the voting population is disabled. The mistake that many media outlets are making is assuming that disability issues aren't of interest to nondisabled people — but they should be, and Clinton's policy proposals on disability issues should be getting national attention. In this case, her remarks were particularly unusual. Disability is often consigned to speeches about health care or social services, but the candidate chose to frame disability from an economic perspective, focusing on full inclusion for disabled people in the economy, rather than promoting limiting and sometimes patronizing benefits programs.
Clinton hit the "big three" when it comes to the economic issues disabled people themselves are fighting for — showing that her campaign is listening.
Her speech itself was a mixed bag. It included the obligatory inspiration porn (individual stories about disability used in an appeal to emotion) and an overview of her disability rights talking points, clearly targeting a nondisabled audience.
The fact that Clinton has disability rights talking points, though, is remarkable. Many of those same points appeared in the DNC platform this year, highlighting the influence the disability community managed to exert on shaping core party policy. In her speech, Clinton hit the "big three" when it comes to the economic issues disabled people themselves are fighting for — showing that her campaign is listening.
1. The Subminimum Wage
Many members of the general public are not aware of the exception in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay certain disabled people subminimum wage, a practice justified with the claim that they can only do some of the work that a nondisabled person can. Another common exception is the "wait wage," which allows employers to underpay tipped employees — several states, including Maine, have challenges to the wait wage on the ballot this year. The subminimum wage is inherently dehumanizing and insulting, but it's also used as a tool for economic exploitation, and that's why Clinton has vowed to abolish it.
It most commonly shows up in so-called "sheltered workshops," which claim to be supporting disabled people by employing them in jobs that usually involve simplistic, repetitive work. Goodwill is one of the most famous sheltered workshop employers and also one of the most notorious — NBC reported that they were paying employees pennies each hour in 2013.
People making subminimum wage cannot enjoy financial independence: The subminimum wage pushes disabled people who can and want to work onto public benefits, forces them to stay at home, and limits their choices. The Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis finds that disability poverty rates are double that of the nondisabled community in some regions, and the subminimum wage isn't the only reason why — but it's a factor.
By contrast, supported employment, in which disabled people work in community businesses with subsidized wages, allows people to be independent and also provides them with actual job skills.
2. The United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Did you know that there's a disability rights treaty ratified by nearly every country in the world except a handful of holdouts, including the United States? The document sets out some very basic social and political rights, including condemning disability-based discrimination, acknowledging that ability status evolves over time, explicitly expressing concerns about intersectional disability justice, and affirming that disabled children have a right to live in society. Congress refuses to ratify it, with excuses like the claim that the document could interfere with the function of the U.S. legal system.
The National Council on Disability and Human Rights Watch have both strongly urged the government to ratify, as doing so would take the discussion about disability rights in the United States to the next level. It includes policy guidance and recommendations that go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, legislation that actually inspired the document. Ratifying would affirm a commitment to social inclusion and independence for disabled people, which is in line with the ethos of the ADA and subsequent litigation.
Clinton has vowed to pressure Congress to get it done, and it matters because it would bring the U.S. in line with many of our allies in expressly acknowledging the vital social and cultural importance of disability rights.
3. Autism in the Workplace
Autism is a popular cause in the United States right now, but much of the coverage focuses on autistic children. Autistic adults also exist (hi), and face a variety of social issues, including in the workplace. Clinton has laid out an ambitious job creation plan to address the problems faced by both autistic children and adults, and in doing so could build a framework for addressing other disabilities in the workplace as well. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network noted in January that Clinton has extensive and progressive autism-related policy proposals, and this speech followed in that vein by being explicit about economic inclusion.
In an election where the bulk of discussion about disability has surrounded Donald Trump's comments about a disabled reporter, with Bloomberg finding that six in ten voters found his comments offensive, disability is being reduced to a simplistic political blunt object: Donald Trump is mean to disabled people, so you shouldn't like him. Disability issues are much bigger and more complicated than that, though — Donald Trump may be a jerk, but the lack of disability-specific policy in his platform, paired with proposals that will be harmful for disabled people, is the real problem. Clinton is upping the stakes of the game, and it's time to start paying attention — and to start considering the disability issues she hasn't even delved into yet, like guardianship and voting rights, the Social Security benefits trap, sexual autonomy, and more.