Disability: A New Campaign Issue About Not-so-new Concerns

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton recently proposed increased early screenings and more resources for treating autism.
01/28/2016 03:19 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton recently proposed increased early screenings and more resources for treating autism. It's rare to see a presidential candidate bring up the needs of people with disabilities - about 15-20% of the American population. Sara Luterman, editor of NOS (Not Otherwise Specified) Magazine, who is also autistic, referred to Clinton's proposal as "unprecedented" for a presidential campaign.

Autism may be a new campaign issue, but lack of resources and discriminatory attitudes and practices contributing to increasing gaps in employment and earnings is nothing new.

Historically, key legislative gains for Americans with disabilities have been made outside the public eye. Vocational rehabilitation programs, accessible spaces, and discrimination protection in schools and the workplace were mostly achieved by enterprising policymakers, many of whom were personally touched by disability. Even the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) last year received relatively little coverage in the media.

Clinton's proposed initiative is not an impassioned call to eliminate persistent discrimination faced by people with autism and disabilities more generally. It's a proposal that is unlikely to muster vitriolic responses from her opponents. In Clinton's words, "a lot of those families are just at their wits end trying to figure out how to get services [and] how to get the insurance companies to pay for those services." Clinton placed a great deal of emphasis on curing and treating autism. Perhaps she might be trying to tap into this constituency.

But the disability community in general - and the autism community in particular - are far from monolithic. Because disability cuts across age, class, and politics, people with disabilities reflect wide-ranging preferences not only about who should be president but also about what the government's role should be on disability issues.

There is disagreement even among the numerous organizations representing the autistic community about where priorities lie: "curing" autism or increasing employment opportunities. Some believe that curing autism is wishful thinking. Others, that it further stigmatizes those with autism, or that it diverts attention from addressing the existing social and economic needs of the autistic community.

Whatever the reason, a good follow-up move for Clinton - or for one of her opponents, on either side may be to push a proposal that appeals to this broad and diverse base by emphasizing social and economic barriers.

For example, Luterman stated that people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, including people with autism, are among the most marginalized in American society. Despite legislative intentions, policy outcomes have been less than stellar. Part of that has to do with the kinds of obstacles people with disabilities still face, particularly in employment.

Employment rates among Americans with disabilities have declined every single year since the ADA has been in place. And, as my work with colleague Michelle Maroto shows, there are considerable differences in employment and earnings by type of disability. In 2014, individuals with some form of cognitive disability, like autism, were half as likely to be employed than, for instance, someone with a hearing difficulty. In 2014, people with cognitive disabilities earned 47% less than a similar worker without any disability, while someone with a hearing impairment earned about 10% less.

Clinton's campaign promise about dealing with autism fits well with her overall belief that to be politically effective, one must change policy incrementally. While there is much to praise here, this approach runs the risk of ignoring deeply rooted prejudicial attitudes that act as barriers to social and economic inclusion.

More emphasis should be placed on activating existing disability rights legislation to remove these barriers to employment. It would certainly make for an effective unifying call.