Trump is waging a war on people with disabilities

Policies the Trump administration has pursued have made it difficult for many disable people to lead independent lives.

Obamacare protest
Disabled people protest in front of the Senate Finance Committee room hours before a hearing on the latest Republican effort to repeal Obamacare on September 25, 2017 [Reuters/Kevin Lamarque]

Three Novembers ago, then-candidate Donald Trump came under fire for mocking a reporter living with arthrogryposis, a condition that limits joint function. It was a harbinger of what was to come for America’s disabled in the Trump era. His administration and representatives of his party in Congress have been dead-set on destroying the lives of disabled Americans for the last two years. 

Upon taking office, Trump made repealing and replacing Obamacare, the healthcare insurance law passed under former President Barack Obama, his first congressional priority. This insistence to do away with a law that significantly expanded national healthcare coverage almost left millions of disabled Americans in the dust.

As part of ongoing efforts to repeal Obamacare and cut America’s safety-net, Trump and congressional Republicans wish to undermine Medicaid, the federal health programme for the poor, elderly, disabled and children. The neediest Americans, including many members of the disabled community, use 80 percent of Medicaid’s budgeted services.  

To this day, Republicans advocate limiting federal per-capita Medicaid spending. Such cuts would cause states to raise taxes, pay doctors less, limit coverage eligibility and cut back on services. Cuts would bring an end to programmes such as Medicaid-funded personal care attendants. Almost three million disabled Americans use this programme to live, get out of bed, bathe, eat, drive to work and go to sleep. 

Medicaid pays for more than half of in-home services in the US. It’s the engine that allows many disabled Americans to live independently. Previous Obamacare repeal attempts could have lead to the unnecessary institutionalisation of millions, condemning them to a life of limited freedom and autonomy. Trump and congressional Republicans could care less, as they clearly demonstrated with multiple attempts to destroy Medicaid and gut civil rights laws.

Last winter, 253 congressional Republicans voted to pass HR 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, a bill that would alter the enforcement provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA grants civil rights to people with disabilities, ensuring they have equal access to public places and businesses, requiring owners to supply reasonable accommodations. This bill would undermine the ADA, making it more challenging and time intensive to force businesses to accommodate people with disabilities.

The bill would force a disabled person to first file a notice that usually requires counsel, wait 60 days for a response and wait 120 more days to see if progress is made on remedying a violation of the law before the issue can be brought to the courts. It’s intended to prevent frivolous lawsuits against retailers.

However, the Center for American Progress found that a recent uptick in ADA lawsuits is not widespread and it stems from a single law firm. Republicans can easily patch up the law to deter profiteering lawyers while maintaining civil rights protections. But they have chosen to take a drastic measure that would make it even harder for disabled Americans to stand up for their rights.

Members of the Trump administration have also been punishing disabled Americans. Last year, Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded 72 guidance documents that detailed the rights of special needs students. The rescinded documents were created to clarify how federal disability rights law should apply to the nation’s school districts.  

Last December, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded two dozen guidance documents including several clarifying the implications of the ADA. By doing so, Sessions undermined an Obama-era guidance preventing unnecessary segregation of settings in workplaces as well as vocation and day programmes.

The guidance warned states that they needed to modify their policies to ensure employment programmes offer people with disabilities opportunities to work in fully integrated settings. Rescinding this guidance does not change the ADA’s mandates, but it can create uncertainty about how the law should be interpreted. 

All is not lost in the fight to protect people with disabilities in the United States. Americans have risen up to resist Trump and bring about change. ADAPT activists, for example, played a critical role in the failure of Republicans to repeal Obamacare by staging “die-ins” in US congressional offices.   

As the 2018 US congressional midterm elections approach, momentum is with the Democrats to take control of the US House. Democratic chairpersons in critical US House congressional committees are poised to hold President Trump accountable, investigating and deflecting Republican attempts to weaken safety-net programmes like Medicaid. 

Undoubtedly, some damage has already been done and we have a very long way to go to create an America that caters to all Americans. Contesting conservative attacks on safety-net programmes and public accommodations will not be enough on their own to achieve this. National and state leaders will also need to take steps to make sure all feel welcome in our country’s department stores, restaurants, schools, bus terminals, subways and workplaces. 

The president claims the US is now stronger than ever before, and everybody is doing better. However, this is not the case for millions of vulnerable Americans and low-income families. Trump’s America denies its people healthcare, evicts poor parents and hobbles the disabled. 

Hard fought protections and investments are being scaled back and many Americans are feeling that they are being abandoned by their country. 

Republicans say they celebrate self-sufficiency. However, now that they are in power, rather than help more Americans get back on their feet and live independent and productive lives, they are gutting consumer safeguards, civil rights regulations and social services.

If Republicans really want more Americans to be truly independent, they should question their ruthless adherence to tax cuts for the super-rich, small government and deregulation. Disabled Americans want to lead independent lives. They want to work, raise a family, and contribute to society like all able-bodied adults. It’s time America gives them the tools and resources to do so. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.