One in five voters nationwide are disabled, and if we are to be a country where every voice counts we must do better to ensure justice and equity for all. Veterans and the homeless receive a disproportionate amount of attention as a segment of the disabled population, and some of that makes sense — 40% of the homeless population have at least one disability. But relatively few programs exist to help disabled youth, and I have a strong personal interest in seeing that changed.

I was married in my early 20s to my high school sweetheart. But just over a year into our marriage she had her first psychotic break, and this soon turned into an annual phenomenon. Diagnosed schizoaffective, but with medications only minimally effective, she was unable to work of care for herself, and we struggled to maintain any kind of medical coverage. Social Security Disability repeatedly tried to, and sometimes succeeded in, throwing her off of her benefits, always with disastrous consequences (psychotic episodes, suicide attempts, etc.). When Reagan shut down most of our mental health facilities, we effectively criminalized mental disabilities, and we were literally told that until she managed serious to hurt or kill someone, it would be almost impossible to get her any kind of full-time care (and certainly she did not need prison — she needed help!).

As a country, we routinely fail the sick, the injured, and the disabled. We are the richest country in the history of the world, yet we treat large segments of the population as if they do not exist. How is it that insurance companies can deny simple corrective surgeries and condemn people to a life of suffering, and then offer so few resources to those with disabilities? The system is cruel by design, as well as inefficient and illogical. If we simply offered appropriate coverage and accommodation, much of the disabled population would be able to exercise the full range of freedoms and rights taken for granted by others.

There are a few basic areas we can address in order to ensure a more equitable society. First, end the wage discrimination allowed for under federal law. This was put in place as an inducement to hire the disabled, but the effect is to reduce the dignity of those employees and treat them as inferior citizens. Next, ensure that everyone has a living income, whether this comes via improvements in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Social Income (SSI), or through a basic income, or some other mechanism. Many disabled persons struggle to make ends meet, and this hampers anyone’s life, but puts especial strain on those who already have special needs which can be expensive.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is also due for an update (the last was in 1994), to account for things we have learnt in the years since then, and to close the many loopholes put in place which leave much of the country still inaccessible to disabled persons. We can also begin to move well beyond this framework by setting up a system of paid caregivers, family or otherwise, since this is, in fact, work. Far too many jobs in our society are left out of GDP calculations and ignored as a valuable service, from education to health care, and this is a good area to address. Compensating that time would help people to stay ahead, and allow more people to care for their own family members. We should also expand paid caregiver hours through existing programs, and ensure this work is always at a living wage.

Finally, we need to guarantee long-term care at home and promote independence to the degree possible, so that people can live out their last years in dignity and peace, and we should pass a national death-with-dignity law to ensure the terminally ill and suffering can decide when and how they die. It is a peculiar injustice that a right enjoyed by all other mammals on earth is routinely denied to human beings in America, and forcing people to continue in needless suffering really ought to fall into the same category for us as cruel and unusual punishment.

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