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Brief # 89 Health and Gender

Biden Expected to Reverse Trump Rollbacks and Strengthen Policies Affecting Americans with Disabilities

By Linda F. Hersey

January 8, 2021

For people with disabilities and their advocates, the victory of Joe Biden over Donald Trump offers hope the incoming president will renew support of, and emphasis on, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which offers protections to people with disabilities in the workplace and in the community.

It is with some irony that Trump, who has openly mocked people with disabilities, lost the presidency to an accomplished U.S. senator who himself has a disability. Biden has a neurological disorder that causes stuttering, which he has experienced since childhood.

Trump has a well-documented history of deriding people with disabilities and of allegedly violating the ADA at his properties and businesses. In one high-profile lawsuit, a Purple Heart veteran sued Trump International Hotel and Tower for lacking handicapped-accessible emergency exits, guest rooms and restrooms.

In 2015, when Trump sought a first term in office, he mimicked a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter afflicted with spasms. According to the New York Times, Trump said at a South Carolina rally: “Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy,” Mr. Trump said, before jerking his arms around and holding his right hand at an angle. “ ‘Ah, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember!’ ”

Environment of Increased Intolerance

Providing legal protections for and upholding the civil rights of workers with disabilities, under ADA, impacts millions of Americans.

  • At least one in four people has a disability.
  • More than half of American voters have a disability or a loved one with a disability.

“By ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to work, free from discrimination based on disability, the ADA is an affirmation of our nation’s founding ideals and a cornerstone of our efforts to ensure a fully inclusive American workforce and economy,” according to the EEOC and Labor and Justice Departments, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the landmark civil rights act in 2020.

While the Trump Administration points to the number of people with disabilities hired by the federal government each year, advocates in the disabled community have described an environment of increasing intolerance to people with disabilities, encouraged by the Trump administration.

Trump, after taking office, was criticized for proposing to end funding under the Autism CARES Act. He also proposed to defund the Special Olympics, which led to such an outpouring of complaints and negative publicity that he reversed his position and denied ever suggesting it.

When Special Olympics athletes visited the White House, Trump told reporters: “And I watched [them on TV] — it’s a little tough to watch too much, but I watched as much as I could.”

People with Disabilities Losing Work at Higher Rate Than Non-Disabled

Statistics underscore discrimination that people with disabilities have experienced in the workplace during the four years Trump has been in the Oval Office.

  • Since Trump has been in office, adults with disabilities have lost federal jobs at a much faster pace than working people without disabilities.
  • The EEOC reported that people with disabilities in federal jobs were fired at twice the rate of people without disabilities.
  • Under Trump, there has been a significant increase in the number of people with disabilities in federal jobs who report discrimination in the workplace.
  • There was a 20 percent increase from 2016 to 2017, in the number of disability discrimination complaints filed by federal employees of cabinet-level agencies, according to an NBC News report based on EEOC data.

Subminimum Wage Criticized as Exploitative

Led by Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a disabled Iraq War veteran, Democratic senators have complained about the treatment of disabled federal workers by the Trump administration.

Duckworth has made it a priority that people who need workplace accommodations for disabilities are able to receive them, under ADA. She also has worked to make sure that the federal government remains a “model employer” that does not harass or fire people because of their disabilities.

While the ADA is designed to protect workers, it also allows employers to get a special certificate to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage. Advocates are hoping the Biden administration ends the practice of sub-minimum wage.

The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act would provide grants to states to help employers pay disabled workers minimum wage and better integrate them in the workplace. Attorneys argue that the provision is discriminatory.

“The subminimum wage sends a message to the disability community that their work isn’t as valuable as the work done by able-bodied people,” Duckworth, the first woman with a disability elected to the Senate.  She described the provision as exploiting people with disabilities.

Biden is expected to take additional steps as well to protect the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace and support diversity. The new administration is expected to:

  • Overturn Trump’s order that banned diversity training and implicit bias training by government agencies and contractors
  • Advance employment opportunity equality regardless of sexual orientation
  • Emphasize and prioritize OSHA protection laws in the workplace.
  • Prioritize employee rights.

In his campaign for office, Biden offered a detailed plan for supporting the rights of people in the disabled community. It is a distinct departure from the tone and practices of the past four years under Trump.

“Biden will work with the disability community to build a stronger, more expansive middle class so that everyone—regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability—can find a place,” according to his policy statement. “That means amending our laws, policies, and culture to ensure full inclusion of the 61 million individuals with disabilities in the United States in all parts of our society.”

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