Health care largely took a back seat on Thursday night, but the moderators asked about a related topic not often discussed on the debate stage: people with disabilities. One in four Americans has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but politicians have historically not paid much attention to disabled voters and no other Democratic debate has featured a question explicitly about disability issues. However, voter turnout surged among people with disabilities in 2018 and this time around, many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have started to talk about the topic, with many publishing disability policy plans and hiring disabled campaign staffers.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang was up next, and he gave a personal answer that referenced his autistic son, who he has often mentioned before.
However, the way Yang talks about people with disabilities is controversial. “How many of you all have a family member or a friend or a neighbor with special needs or autism?” he asked. Many disability advocates see “special needs” as outdated phrasing and would prefer politicians not use euphemisms to refer to their disabilities. Advocates have also stressed that they would like to see politicians treat them as people who matter on their own, not just as family members or neighbors or friends of voters.
The most detailed person to answer the question was Warren, who spoke about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as helping people with disabilities secure housing, jobs and equal pay. But even Warren ended her answer by calling disabled people the “least of thy brethren,” a reference that many on social media saw as pitying, even if well intentioned. For Democrats’ first time answering a disability question on stage, their responses showed that they are paying attention, but still have more learning to do.