In a shift that has become a political necessity, Democratic presidential hopefuls are giving unprecedented attention to disability issues in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Nearly every contender for the Democratic nomination — including front-runners former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — has detailed disability policies in their platforms. The plans touch on how practically all national issues, from health care to immigration and education, affect people with disabilities.

The Democratic candidates’ disability policy plans are “probably a response to what candidates learned from 2016,” said Sean Luechtefeld, spokesman for the American Network of Community Options and Resources, or ANCOR, a trade group representing disability services providers. “If (President Donald) Trump is to be defeated, they need the broadest coalition” and cannot overlook the one in four American adults with a disability, he said.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

People with disabilities deserve credit for raising their visibility through the #CripTheVote social media campaign that started in 2015 along with continuous lobbying for disability rights, advocates say.

“In 2017, we showed up in huge numbers to protest efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut the Medicaid program,” said Sam Crane, director of public policy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “This sent a message to political candidates that we are engaged, active and passionate about the policy issues that affect us.”

At the same time, people with disabilities are a diverse constituency, which requires candidates to listen and engage with individual voters, advocates say.

For example, Pete Buttigieg has a “concierge system” for his speeches and appearances, where people with disabilities can contact the campaign beforehand to have their needs met, from transportation to communication devices.

Warren has received praise for her vow to appoint a person with a disability to her cabinet. She also hosted a town hall on Twitter for people with disabilities.

The issue of special education funding came up in a December debate when Warren, a former special education teacher, promised to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act if elected. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has made the same commitment.

Andrew Yang has discussed his young son’s autism on the campaign trail and held an event for people with autism during a December bus tour of Iowa.

Despite the increased attention, however, there are still some improvements to make, advocates say.

Some people with autism have said that Yang’s perspective centers on a typically-developing family member over the person with a disability.

“Being related to a disabled person does not give a person automatic credibility, and certainly does not make that person’s perspective interchangeable with those of actually disabled people,” said Lydia X. Z. Brown, director of the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network’s Autistic People of Color Fund. “In Yang’s case, his disability policy platforms distinctly lack any real substance.”

And while Luechtefeld said he is “heartened” by the candidates’ nuanced disability policies, solutions for the ongoing workforce shortage among direct support professionals have not been adequately addressed by any of the candidates.

Without a plan to address the workforce crisis, “all the other elements (of disability policies) won’t really matter much,” he said.

On the whole, increased visibility “creates an opportunity for Americans with disabilities to bring their talents and skills forward to become part of the solution,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli of RespectAbility, a nonprofit that supports disability inclusion. “I also hope that the more public dialogue about people with disabilities, the more people have higher expectations for what people with disabilities can achieve.”