By Rachita Singh | AAPD Policy Associate | February 28, 2022
On March 1, 2022 President Biden is set to deliver his first official State of the Union address.
He gives this address as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearing a million COVID-related deaths, and yet people are still unsure of guidance on masks, vaccines, and quarantining. While Congress did pass some significant legislation this year, like the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, other vital pieces of legislation, like the Build Back Better Act, have stalled in negotiations. Americans have been left to wonder if there will be further action taken to enhance and expand access to home-and community-based services, as we continue to see overwhelmed waitlists and underpaid direct support staff. We have been left questioning what the future of our democracy will be as states continue to make efforts to suppress the votes of disabled people and of people of color. President Biden will also deliver this address as Russia continues to invade Ukraine and force a mass displacement of Ukrainian people. President Biden should deliver an address that provides clarity on many of these issues and presents a series of actionable solutions his administration plans to pursue. As a disabled Brown woman, here are my hopes for what President Biden will highlight in his first State of the Union Address:
- Home- and Community-Based Services (HCBS)
The fight for full and appropriate funding for home- and community-based services (HCBS) has been decades in the making, and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda provided significant hope that we would see progress in reducing HCBS waiting lists, increasing direct support worker wages, and improving the quality of available services. Although this priority may be stalled in Congress, it is of vital importance to the disability community. Progress towards this goal is essential to rebuilding our economy and to giving people with disabilities, direct support workers, and our families a fair shot. Expanding access to HCBS will help close to one million people with disabilities and seniors who are waiting for this money in order to come off the waiting lists and receive the support they need in the homes and communities they love. Furthermore, care providers and direct support professionals deserve the wages and benefits that the funding includes. We’ve waited decades for this necessary support – in his address, the President needs to signal that he’s listening and that we don’t have to wait any longer.
- Prioritizing People with Disabilities in Continued Pandemic Response
The COVID-19 virus and its variants have now resulted in almost a million deaths, an unknown number of new disabilities from Long COVID, and damaging economic, mental, and social impacts that people, particularly multiply-marginalized people, have endured. While no one has gone completely unaffected, the disability community has definitely borne the brunt of the pandemic – not only because we are more vulnerable to the virus, but also because of existing inequities in our healthcare, workforce, and education systems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. COVID has been and continues to be a mass disabling event. Long COVID has caused people across the nation to have to learn how to navigate the world in completely new ways. A lack of access to regular health care during the pandemic, has caused many conditions to decline or treatable diseases to go unchecked. All too frequently, Americans have noticed that their mental health worsened during the pandemic. This is especially true for young adults and children, and we need to make sure that we are addressing these needs in our nation’s responses to COVID-19. I want to hear President Biden prioritize the disability community, when he discusses how his team has handled and will continue to handle COVID-19. I will not be satisfied with a single mention of “disability” in the State of the Union address, nor will I be satisfied with a single sentence. I want to hear how disabled people are being centered in the COVID response as we expect students to go back to school in person without having the option to continue remote education as an accommodation. I want to know what considerations will be made for the disabled people who are now expected to safely be able to interact in our communities without the presence of mask mandates, expected to utilize telehealth despite the lack of accessibility on telehealth platforms, and expected to struggle in the workplace with symptoms of Long COVID because they cannot access disability benefits.
- Addressing Racial Justice, Police Violence, and the Rise of Hate Crimes
When discussing systemic discrimination and marginalization, race and disability cannot be separated. While the Biden administration has done better than others in hiring people from diverse identities as federal appointees, more significant action must be taken to protect Black, Indigenous, and other poeple of color from further discrimination and violence. During the first year of the Biden administration, Black and Brown communities have continued to encounter police violence. Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Americans continue to experience hate crimes at unprecedented rates. State legislatures across the country have and continue to institute new legislation suppressing voters of color, yet critical legislation to address voting rights at the federal level has repeatedly failed or stalled in the Senate. Given the prevalence of disability in every community, these issues are not just racial issues, but disability justice issues as well. I want President Biden to discuss how he will direct his administration’s energy into addressing criminal justice reform and protections for these communities, openly condemn white supremacy, and commit to move forward with efforts to end voter suppression in order to protect the voting rights of millions across the nation.
- Eliminating Subminimum Wage and Promoting Disability Employment
I am sure that a core message of President Biden’s address will be the need to grow the economy for the lower and middle classes, a message that was essential to his campaign. In 2021, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was still more than twice the rate of people without disabilities (10.6% compared to 4.9%). Not only do people with disabilities participate in the labor force at lower rates, those who are employed experience lower rates of pay compared to their non-disabled peers. One of the reasons for this gap in pay is Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Through 14(c), employers are allowed to pay subminimum wage to employees with disabilities, i.e. they can pay however little they choose to. It has been more than 80 years since the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law, and despite the development of disability employment civil rights protections and enormous advancements in accessibility, this discriminatory rule is still in place. Even today, the allowance of subminimum wage reinforces stereotypes that people with disabilities are inherently less productive and diminishes our skills and contributions. I desperately hope to hear President Biden say that as part of his plan to strengthen the economy for average Americans, he will finally eliminate subminimum wage on behalf of all workers everywhere.
- Acknowledge The Link Between Disability, War, and Supporting Refugees
War and disability are inherently linked. War creates disability – not only through those who become injured and disabled during the conflict, but also through the trauma that war creates as civilians live through war, witness destruction and bloodshed, and are often forced to flee their homes. This should be a consideration in the support that the United States provides Ukrainian refugees. We already know that more than half a million refugees have fled Ukraine in the wake of Russian violence. The nature of their displacement will cause many of these refugees to become disabled. For those who are able to flee, women will be at greater risk for gender-based violence, and children will face physical harm and severe emotional distress. While the United States has already committed money to aid in the response to the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis, I want to hear President Biden speak to how U.S. aid will foster greater accessibility of refugee shelters, how it will help ensure access to healthcare that is responsive to refugees with complex medical needs, and how it will keep families connected, regardless of an individual’s communication or access needs.