On Eve Of ADA Anniversary, Republicans Voted To Set Disability Rights Back Decades

07/27/2017 09:29 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2017

While disability rights have enjoyed many successes, it has also become increasingly partisan. The recent efforts by the GOP to repeal Obamacare have made this political divide unmistakable.

Colleen Flanagan

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. In a cruel sense of irony, the GOP delivered a major blow to the rights of people with disabilities by taking the first steps to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) on the eve of the 27th anniversary of the ADA’s passage. As a disabled woman, I am horrified.

The ADA is the landmark civil rights law for people with disabilities; it prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by employers, state and local government services, and places of public accommodation. Such entities are also required to provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that people with disabilities have full access. While the rights of people with disabilities have still not been fully achieved, the ADA has undeniably led to many positive changes.

Notably, the ADA was passed with bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by a Republican president. At the time, this was not surprising. Historically, disability rights have been bipartisan. Indeed, Republican presidents have enacted most major federal disability rights laws, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and ADA. Disability transcends political party and politicians understand that – or used to understand that.

Times have certainly changed since the ADA was passed twenty-seven years ago. While disability rights have enjoyed many successes, it has also become increasingly partisan. The recent efforts by the GOP to repeal Obamacare have made this political divide unmistakable.

People with disabilities have benefited tremendously from Obamacare. Since its passage, health insurance companies have no longer been allowed to deny people with disabilities coverage because of their “pre-existing condition.” This is particularly noteworthy as the ADA includes an exemption for health insurance companies, which is why insurers continued to discriminate against people with disabilities until Obamacare was passed.

Obamacare includes a number of provisions that have expanded access to health care for people with disabilities. For example, Obamacare removed limits on health benefits and lowered Medicare costs. A less known but very important aspect of Obamacare is the requirement that standards for accessible medical diagnostic equipment (e.g., scales, exam tables, mammogram equipment) be developed. As a woman with a physical disability, I often encounter doctors’ offices that lack accessible exam tables, resulting in me receiving sub-par care.

The expansion of Medicaid has also been important for people with disabilities. Because of Obamacare, states were able to receive additional federal funding if they expanded Medicaid eligibility so more people qualified. Prior to Obamacare, people with disabilities were forced to be unemployed because if they earned any income they would no longer qualify for Medicaid. Notably, a recent study found the employment rate among people with disabilities is higher in states with Medicaid expansion.

Medicaid is a lifeline for more than 10 million children and adults with disabilities, including myself. Indeed, Medicaid is the only health insurer to cover many necessary services that allow people with disabilities to live in their communities. For example, Medicaid pays for personal care assistant (PCA) services, which provide care to people with disabilities in their homes. Without PCAs, I would need to live in an institution or nursing home.

Because home and community based services are vital to the existence of people with disabilities, activists have literally put their lives on the line to oppose the GOP health care bill, which not only eliminates Medicaid expansion but also proposes massive cuts to Medicaid generally. Just yesterday, as the Senate voted to begin dismantling Obamacare, 64 protesters with disabilities were arrested at the Capitol building.

The GOP’s efforts to decimate Medicaid has direct implications for the ADA. In the 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision, the United States Supreme Court held that people with disabilities have a legal right to live in the community and that needless segregation, such as in nursing homes and institutions, directly violates the ADA’s mandate that people with disabilities be afforded the opportunity to live integrated lives like nondisabled individuals. A critical part of the Olmstead decision is that states are required to provide home and community based services so that we can live independently in our communities. As previously mentioned, Medicaid typically funds these supports and services.

By repealing Obamacare and dramatically cutting funding to Medicaid, the GOP will be turning back the clocks on disability rights. This should concern every American. Fifty-seven million individuals in the U.S., about one in five individuals, have some type of disability. Disability can happen to anyone at any time and it does not choose political party.

Twenty-seven years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA and proclaimed, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down!” As the GOP debates the future of Obamacare and vis-à-vis the lives of people with disabilities, those walls are quickly taking shape again. We cannot let that happen.

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