Across the country, people with disabilities are continuing to lead the fight for inclusivity and recognition, with the support of their families, advocates, and human services professionals. But under a Trump administration, that fight is going to get a lot harder.
Trump’s mocking of disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski last year has been widely recognized, but his actual policies for people with disabilities are just as terrible. His plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), even without a replacement, is dangerous for the many people with disabilities who now worry about losing their health insurance. His promise to cut Medicaid is also disastrous for the more than 10 million people with disabilities who rely on it in order to to receive services, like community-based care that promotes independent living opportunities and integrated work and community environments. And his record of haphazardly enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the removal of the White House website’s pages on access and inclusion shortly after he came to office, indicate very clearly that people with disabilities are simply not a priority for a Trump administration.
Lost in this struggle are work centers. Formerly referred to as sheltered workshops, work centers provide job training and employment opportunities to people with disabilities (though unfortunately often at sub-minimum wages).
At NW Works, Inc., a work center in rural Winchester, Virginia, some clients even begin employment at the workshop when they are still in high school, as a part of their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a living document, reviewed at least once a year, reflecting the starting point and annual goals of students diagnosed with a disability, which is used by teachers to individualize curriculum. The federal funding that facilitates educational employment experiences for students with disabilities could be at risk under the new administration with the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who isn’t even familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), under which the IEP is implemented.
NW Works has already prepared for the possibility that funding for services used by their clients could be impacted.
“We’ve applied pretty heavily for grants in the last year, anticipating the possibility that certain dollars will go in other places,” Director of Achievement Melody Crossway said, adding that there has been an unprecedented collaboration among different groups in the fight for disability rights in Virginia. “It’s a lot of agencies pulling together and it’s the the first time, in a long time, in this field, in this state, that I’ve seen agencies start to partner up and instead of acting like they’re in competition, they’re starting to realize we’re all kind of leaning on each other for the same cause.”
Despite the current reactionary approach, the work of ensuring funding for job coaching and other services is business as usual in the human services sector. However, for the first time, staff had to prepare to address rhetoric from the election.
Crossway said she wasn’t approached by a single client in the days after Trump’s remarks about Kovaleski, but she still realized that “we aren’t focusing enough on educating folks with disabilities about their rights…on empowering them to stand up for themselves…on teaching them what things like exploitation mean.”
Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened hate across the country, including by those who don’t view people with disabilities as equals. Becky Kump, a Person Centered Planning (PCP) coordinator at NW Works, said that clients were harassed at a local bowling alley, where they encountered a man who was “very disrespectful.” In that instance, she was glad to see support from the establishment’s management in removing him from the premises. Even so, this type of interaction is a daily occurrence for people with disabilities, which Crossway described as “a form of abuse.”
Still, in rural America, it’s not uncommon to hear support for Trump from families of people with disabilities.
“Who hasn’t?” said Cindi,* whose son is a client at NW Works, after being asked about experiences being mocked. But when asked about the discussion of people with disabilities during the campaign, she said the way “President Trump was quoted in liberal media is misconstrued.” And though she felt that there would be no impact under the Trump administration to services her son receives, she complained about the “block from those abusing help” like Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and disability waivers.
Catherine Burzio, who works as a vocational evaluator for a local school district and provides transition support to students with disabilities leaving school, once received disability funding to care for her late daughter. Her approach to disability rights and services is “see a need, meet a need,” which she brings to her work. Still, despite her work, she identifies as fiscally and socially conservative, and voted for Trump in the election.
Many of the clients at NW Works have similarly dismissed Trump’s remarks on those with disabilities. “I feel like he didn’t mean what he said,” said Mat,* while also expressing hope that his access to services like transportation get better in the future.
It’s still not clear that their hopes in Trump will be fulfilled, based on his record in office so far. But despite the variety of perspectives, Melody identified the resonating commonality: “It’s my human service hope that we’re all going to do the right thing.”
*Where noted, last names have not been mentioned to protect the privacy of those impacted.
Bisma Sheikh is a Muslim American policy wonk from rural Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @Bisma__Sheikh.