Bernie Sanders on People with Disabilities

Bernie Sanders is a strong advocate for civil rights for all Americans, including those with disabilities. His voting record clearly supports equal rights and opportunities for individuals with disabilities and has been unwavering in this regard throughout his decades of public service.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and the Senate Committee on Budget, Bernie has consistently supported providing individuals with disabilities adequate funding to obtain the services and support they need to live and work.

Disabled Veterans

What are some of the issues that veterans face?

One of the most pressing issues that vets face today is the disability claims backlog. Bernie’s Senate website states that “[e]very service member and veteran deserves timely and comprehensive health care and benefits, not bureaucratic red tape that far too many encounter today.”

OK, so is Bernie just giving lip service to our service members?

Hardly. As chairperson of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Bernie has proposed legislation known as the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. While this piece of legislation — endorsed by over 25 military and veterans service organizations — could not overcome partisan gridlock in Congress, Bernie voted for and was the leading negotiator — along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — in passing the $2 billion Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act in June 2014.

Bernie knows veterans face many unacceptable difficulties such as long waits after claiming benefits, improper care, substandard dental coverage, and poor employment opportunities, and the successful legislation he worked so hard on to pass directly targets these issues.

How does this legislation directly target the issues affecting veterans today?

In April 2014, it was reported that at least 40 U.S. military veterans had died waiting for care. Bernie began to work quickly to introduce the Choice Act to address the problems within the VA health care system, and fiercely denounced objections to such reforms based on fiscal responsibility:

“[I]f we spend trillions of dollars on that war, that when our men and women come home from war, some wounded in body, some wounded in spirit, I don’t want to hear people telling me it’s too expensive to take care of those wounded veterans. I don’t accept that. If you think it’s too expensive to take care of veterans, don’t send them to war.”

Enacted less than two months later in June, provisions of the Choice Act immediately increased veterans access to health care by providing veterans with “Veterans Choice Cards.” These cards allowed veterans who had to travel over 40 miles or wait more than 30 days for care to visit private care facilities.  The Choice Act also increased VA health care staffing, expanded VA facilities to accommodate more veterans, and created new VA health care centers.

Access to VA health care is a matter of life and death for some veterans. Bernie Sanders was integral to legislation increasing access to care. Bernie’s colleague, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) had this to say about Bernie’s work:

“Last year when we had the scandal at the VA, he was incredibly effective, engaged in getting the legislation passed, in getting it funded. Frankly, without him, I don’t think we would have gotten it done.”

Learn more about Bernie’s record with regards to issues about the military & its veterans.


Didn’t we end discriminatory employment practices with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Unfortunately, no. The original purpose of the ADA has eroded. In a press release Bernie stated:

“The Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to provide broad protection for the estimated 18 percent of the U.S. population that lives with some level of disability. Recent court decisions limited the number of people who are allowed to seek the law’s protections, leading to widespread non-compliance and a great deal of misunderstanding about the responsibilities of businesses, governments, and individuals.”

What are disability service and support groups saying about the ADA?

Many groups agree with Bernie that the ADA has lost its ability to adequately protect disabled Americans. The Vermont Center for Independent Living (VCIL) has stated:

“Recent court decisions have denied ADA (particularly employment-related) protections to people who manage or deal with their disability with medication, prosthesis or other assistive devices, or other ‘mitigating measures.’ This is particularly true in employment, where individuals with visible and invisible disabilities have been denied a fair court review.“

How has Bernie worked towards solving these issues?

Bernie co-sponsored the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which discarded several of the damaging rulings the courts have issued concerning the ADA and served to “[narrow] the broad scope of protection intended to be afforded by the ADA.”

Specifically, the ADAAA served to reject the reasoning used in two Supreme Court cases and to broaden the definition of disability to adhere to the ADA’s goal of providing “a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination” and “clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination.”

Following the passage of the ADAAA in 2008, Bernie said the following:

“There is still a long way to go to ensuring that the basic civil rights of persons with disabilities are fully protected and respected, but this is an important step in that direction.”


What’s being done to stop the cuts to the Medicaid program that disabled Americans rely on?

Bernie understands that millions of disabled Americans rely on a strong Medicaid program for their immediate and long term care. He’s championed the fight to protect and strengthen the Medicaid program. In a letter to President Obama regarding the 2015 federal budget, Bernie and 15 other senators wrote:

“These are tough times for our country. With the middle class struggling and more people living in poverty than ever before, we urge you not to propose cuts in your budget … which would make life even more difficult for some of the most vulnerable people in America.  We look forward to working with you in support of the needs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor – and all working Americans.”

Learn more about Bernie’s record on Medicaid.


What has Bernie done to advance education for people with disabilities?

Bernie sponsored the 2008 budget increase amendment which called for a $10 billion increase for special education. Currently, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helps about 6.5 million children with disabilities. Had his amendment been passed, it would have directed more funding towards IDEA and other education programs. In a press release, Bernie stated:

“Over 30 years ago, the federal government made a promise to school districts around the country to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education. The federal government has not kept its commitment. Special Education is an expensive proposition and because of inadequate federal funding, property taxes in Vermont and around the country are increasing while kids with special ed needs are not getting the attention they deserve. My amendment this week is part of an ongoing effort to begin the process of strong federal funding for special education.”

What’s Bernie’s stance on “No Child Left Behind” relating to children with disabilities?

Bernie believes that the No Child Left Behind Act has run its course and, as a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, he has worked towards reforming our education system.

According to a recent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) questionnaire, Bernie’s education reform priorities include: reducing the amount of standardized testing, allowing states to implement innovative assessment programs which empower educators, and including wrap-around support services like health, mental health, and family support.

For more information, visit our issue page that discusses Bernie’s record on education.

Appropriations and the Federal Budget

Has Bernie advocated for increased funding to programs meant to support people with disabilities?

Yes, multiple times. Bernie co-sponsored the Expand TRICARE Coverage of Autism amendment, which expanded the program’s coverage to include autism spectrum disorders and appropriated an additional $45 million for the insurance coverage of autism therapy. He also co-sponsored the Assistive Technology Act of 2004, supporting grants to programs intended to address assistive technology needs of individuals with disabilities.

What about the people who want to cut funding for people with disabilities?

In January 2015, Bernie released a statement that benefits for the disabled and their children could face a 20 percent cut next year if the Senate were to follow House Republicans’ 2015 budget proposal. “Instead of working to strengthen Social Security for all, the House Republicans’ new rule puts America’s most vulnerable at risk,” Sanders said.

Bernie was joined by Senate Democratic leaders in sending a letter to Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging him not to adopt the same stance as his House colleagues:

“Holding hostage the Social Security benefits of any American, particularly those of the 9 million Americans with disabilities who are at risk in the coming years, is an untenable position. It only increases the chances of yet another unnecessary manufactured crisis, akin to shutting down the government or threatening the full faith and credit of the United States. We ask that you speak out and forcibly reject the House Republican rule in order to take this reckless concept off the table and ensure Americans with disabilities that they can count on their government to act responsibly.”