By Jessica Benham
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
Editor’s Note: This is another installment of a series of essays from community stakeholders and voters about “What’s at Stake” in the upcoming General Election.
I have a pre-existing condition. I’m a disabled, bisexual woman. In many ways, my life is on the ballot this fall. Following the lead of President Trump, many Republicans in the Pennsylvania State House have refused to wear masks and blame pre-existing conditions, rather than COVID, for the deaths of people like me. I’m sorry, if I get hit and killed by a bus, it wasn’t the pre-existing condition that killed me, it was the bus. People like me are dying, and many people, including our president and many of my potential future colleagues in the PA house, don’t seem to care. And let’s not forget: Black and brown people with disabilities are dying at even higher rates than white disabled people like me. Do you care?
Where COVID does not kill, it has the potential to maim, leaving so-called long haulers with the lasting consequences of the disease. Those who would have us only focus on the death rates forget that the mishandling of the pandemic is causing more and more people to join the ranks of disabled people. COVID is going to be a pre-existing condition for so many, including, because of his own negligence, President Trump. As Imani Barbarin tweeted, “Blaming disabled people for their disabilities is ableist. Blaming a president who exacerbated an airborne pandemic for political reasons when he gets the virus is not ableist.”
The president, I’m sure, will have the best of medical care, unlike many in this country. If only having COVID would also give him empathy for those of us, like me, whose access to healthcare is constrained. His financial resources, position of power, and arrogance mean that, even though he now has a pre-existing condition, he does not live with or even seek to understand the fears that the rest of us have.
Vice President Joe Biden is a complicated and imperfect candidate – all of us who run are. Unlike many of the other candidates, Vice President Biden did not release a disability policy platform during the Democratic primary, only doing so after he had secured the nomination. It was a historic year for the inclusion of the concerns of people with disabilities in policy conversations in the primary, and I was saddened that our eventual nominee was slow to acknowledge our unique concerns.
Yet, unlike the president, Biden has listened to disabled people, not mocked them, and has now included us in his campaign and policy proposals. That’s part of why he has been endorsed by a broad coalition of leaders with disabilities, including Mia Ives-Rublee, Maysoon Zayid, Matthew Cortland, Judy Heumann, Rebecca Cokley, Liz Weintraub, Anna Perng, and Claudia Gordon. I very rarely see people like me, a working-class bi disabled young woman, represented in policy discussions, and I know there are so many other communities who feel poorly represented too. It’s part of why I’ve helped others run for office and why I’m running for office myself. We deserve elected officials who come from our communities and who care if we live or die. And because of what’s at stake for people like me, I’m voting for Joe Biden.
I do not have space to name every way in which the Trump presidency has been a disaster for the marginalized communities of which I am a part, but I want to focus on disability and two issues at the top of my mind.
Building on his attempts to weaken Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, the president is fighting in the courts to overturn protections for people with pre-existing conditions. He signed a largely symbolic executive order claiming to protect people with pre-existing conditions, which, in reality, offered little hope for people like us. I would have health insurance under a Biden presidency – I’d likely be unable to afford it if the ACA’s protections are eliminated under a Trump second term.
President Trump and Secretary Betsy Devos have made it more difficult, in every way, for kids with disabilities to receive an equitable public education, a situation exacerbated under the pandemic conditions which have necessitated, for many, remote schooling. By contrast, Vice President Biden has promised to fully fund IDEA and ensure that kids with disabilities get the education to which they are legally entitled.
Because people with disabilities exist within every other group in society, all policy issues, including healthcare and education as previously mentioned, are disability policy issues. Joe Biden’s Plan for Full Participation and Equality for People with Disabilities recognizes the breadth of our interests. He recognizes that climate, COVID-19 relief, ending mass incarceration, immigration, workers’ rights, housing, reproductive justice, transportation and so much more are disability policy issues too.
I hold a relatively privileged position as a white, cis woman who had access to higher education. Yet, my future is still so, so bleak under a second Trump term: lack of access to healthcare, ongoing loss of economic opportunity, breathing in worsening air, more people like me dying from COVID, and the continued emboldening of eugenists. For others who are more marginalized than I am, that potential future is even worse.
Biden may not fully represent me, but he has listened to our communities. Our work doesn’t end on Nov. 3. If Biden wins, we have to push him and hold him accountable for the promises that he has made to us. And more than that, we can run for local office, elect people like us, and fight for justice locally by organizing our communities. We all have a role to play, and it will take a movement that goes beyond electoral politics for us to create a society and a system that works for all of us, not just the select few.