In early January, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren released her disability rights and equality plan, shining a needed spotlight on the issues and livelihoods of the largest minority group in the country. Behind the plan were several activists, scholars, and community leaders who made this plan a reality—I was one of them.
The plan addresses many issues central to the disability community, from the current barriers to receiving and retaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits to investments in public education for disabled students and families, to pushing for more affordable assistive technologies that greatly impact the quality of life of members in our community and tackling the failures of our prison system that harms and traumatizes those who are incarcerated.
Regardless of whether you support Warren’s presidential bid, the 16-page “Protecting the Rights and Equality of People with Disabilities” plan—and the way it was developed—should serve as a blueprint for policymaking that pops the bubble of Washington-insider influence. Warren’s team achieved this through the central inclusion of members of the community that the policy aims to impact and an embrace of remote-work technologies that enabled a diverse and disparate group to effectively craft a meaningful plan.
As one of the people who helped craft the policy, I, along with other disability activists and leaders, voiced my opinions about what I hoped to see within a Warren plan and which mishaps to avoid that were visible within other presidential candidates’ plans. Those of us within the Disability Policy Group understood the gravity of the work before us; we each brought our knowledge—lived and acquired through our respective work—that would be instrumental in creating a plan that was diverse in focus as the makeup of the group itself.
To bring together such a dynamic group, members of which were located across the U.S., the Warren campaign used several simple but meaningful tools that made it easier to help craft the plan. We scheduled our meeting times with Doodle polls, which allowed the Warren team to sort out dates and times that we could meet. Those meetings took place on a monthly basis via Zoom, a video conferencing app that gave us the ability to see and hear each other as we worked through the plan’s details. Google Docs, meanwhile, became an essential tool that we used to gather ideas outside of the meetings and allowed us to see each other’s thoughts in real-time and expand on topics that we felt were critical.
The internet—all its problems aside—does create access that expands our worlds and gives us the opportunity to connect with people we may not have had the chance to know. In this case, the Warren campaign was proactive in ensuring that the technology we used would bring us together, to do something unique: compiling an inclusive, intersectional plan, crafted by the people who would be affected by such a policy, that would arguably set a new milestone within the discourse of disability and politics.
The plan we crafted is expansive, covering a broad range of specific issues that affect the disability community, from healthcare to the enforcement of disability rights laws. And technology sits at the center of many of these issues. This specifically includes Warren’s commitment to expanding broadband across the U.S. and to making federal government websites fully accessible. It includes her vow to pass the Digital Equity Act, which, as the plan we created explains, “invests $2.5 billion over ten years to help states develop digital equity plans and launch digital inclusion projects.”
More important than the tech we used to collaborate was the group itself. Diversity within politics is more than just a talking point—it’s crucial in ensuring that the perspectives of multiply-marginalized people are present within the policies established. For the Warren campaign, there were several disabled women of color who participated and provided their insights that can be seen throughout the plan, ensuring that the political landscape broke outside of the norm regarding disability and who are at the table.
Myself, along with Elena Hung, executive director and co-founder of Little Lobbyists (a family-led group advocating on behalf of children with complex medical needs and disabilities), and Alice Wong, co-partner in #CripTheVote (a nonpartisan campaign encouraging the political participation of disabled people) were several of the disabled women of color who acted as consultants for the campaign. All three of us were connected to the campaign’s director of disability outreach, Molly Doris-Pierce. We each had the opportunity to talk with Molly about the disability issues we would like to see within a presidential candidate’s disability-specific plan; my experience went a bit further in discussing the importance of multiply-marginalized disabled people being consulted not just within this capacity, but also in the public outreach efforts spearheaded by campaigns.
We each felt compelled to take part in crafting the Warren team’s plan because we knew our involvement would bring much-needed perspectives in this work. For example, Elena’s participation was motivated by her disabled daughter: “The policies that matter most to me are the policies that will help ensure that she and other disabled children grow up in a world that is accessible and inclusive,” she told me. As disabled women of color, bringing our experiences to the table mattered. The voices, faces, and perspectives seen within politics that centers on disability do not typically look like ours or include us; this erasure limits the depth of any policy plan that fails to understand that this community is not a monolith nor makes room to tackle certain issues from an angle that considers intersectional disparities.
Centering such disparities within the policy plan gave it strength. As Alice told me, “I like how the plan highlights differences and disparities among LGBTQ+ and disabled people of color when it comes to discrimination, civil liberty violations, violence by law enforcement, employment, education, and disciplinary practices toward students with disabilities.”
Elena felt similarly, regarding the inclusion of disabled immigrants. “In the past three years, we have seen disabled children denied medical care at the border, threats to the deferred action program granting life-saving medical care to young people, changes to the ‘public charge’ rule to justify denial of green cards, and other harmful attacks on disabled immigrants,” she said. “Warren’s explicit pledge to undo this administration’s inhumane immigration agenda that has coupled xenophobia with ableism is very important.” This level of inclusion is what gave us the insight to highlight statistics within these key areas that demonstrate how these issues shape members of the community differently based on identities. For instance, the plan explains that disabled Black Americans and Native Americans have the lowest rates of employment among disabled workers, according to the Brookings Institution, and that the racial gap in high school graduation means Latinx and Black disabled students receive a diploma at rates of 70 percent and 64 percent, respectively, compared to their white peers (74 percent) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—important context that might have otherwise been left out or ignored.
Acting as a consultant for the campaign was both empowering and rewarding. “Nothing about us without us” was evident, from who was involved to the main points written. Including diverse people in this work was not an afterthought; it was a priority. A priority witnessed not only in this capacity, but in the numerous women and femmes this campaign hired to breathe life into this mission. As Elena noted, “I think about my daughter and what kind of world I want for her. I love that she can see women—especially disabled women of color—in positions of power.”
Warren’s plan is more than just a plan. It’s a blueprint for how a campaign can interact with a community so that everyone is included in protecting and fighting for the rights we deserve and will better the livelihoods of all. The current status quo is ineffective and won’t lead us forward. The Warren campaign showed that, by fully including members of the communities her plans most directly affect and embracing the tools that made their contributions impactful, a better way exists.