Julián Castro’s Latest Plan Tackles Disability Rights: ‘There Are No Second-Class Citizens’

Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro unveiled a set of ambitious presidential campaign proposals that are centered on protecting and expanding the rights of people with disabilities, who make up a quarter of the U.S. population and are becoming increasingly more visible on the political stage.

The plan focuses on fighting homelessness, institutionalization and inherent flaws in the criminal justice, education and immigration systems that disproportionately affect the disability community but especially poor, disabled people of color.

“People with disabilities are strong and resilient, but too often have been excluded from the rest of society and ignored by our politics,” states the plan, titled “People First Disability Policy,” a copy of which was shared with HuffPost before its release Wednesday.

The policy aims to build upon the civil rights established in the Americans With Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination based on disability in all aspects of society, including employment, education and transportation. The ADA turns 30 next year.

“Achieving the four key promises of the ADA — equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency — is [a] never-ending struggle for equality and requires an ongoing fight for justice,” the plan states, later adding, “After three decades of progress for people with disabilities, there are still barriers to inclusion that hold us back from our full potential.”

The presidential candidate’s plan follows on the heels of his Democratic rivals Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who introduced her disability policy in late August, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who released a comprehensive 19-page platform to expand disability rights on Nov. 2.

Castro will prioritize reforming the U.S. education, criminal justice and immigration systems, all of which, he told HuffPost, are inextricably linked.

“Oftentimes, if people have challenges in one type of institution, like the school system, they all have challenges in another system — the criminal justice system, housing system,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “So I’ve found that the best way to help people and the best way to improve their lives is address all of those systems in the way they’re connected.”

The report outlines several ideas to protect immigrants and asylum seekers with disabilities. Castro promises to defend immigrants with medical relief and humanitarian visas as well as repeal President Donald Trump’s public charge rule, which has discouraged green card and visa holders from accessing health care, nutritional and other public benefits for fear of blocking their residency or citizenship path.

People with disabilities are strong and resilient, but too often have been excluded from the rest of society and ignored by our politics.
Julián Castro, 2020 presidential candidate

His criminal and civil justice proposals focus on protecting the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities and ensuring that the trial process is fully inclusive of disabled people. They include getting rid of solitary confinement, requiring that all courts be accessible, training police officers to work with and understand disabled people’s needs, and providing training for prosecutors, judges and public defenders to work with disabled witnesses and victims of crimes so their experiences and testimonies are taken seriously. 

Castro also promises to gather data via the Bureau of Justice Statistics that would shed light on the intersection of race and disability among victims of police brutality as well as limit attempts to surveil or hold registries that keep track of people with mental health disabilities, in an effort to help break the stigma between mental illness and violence.

“We believe that everyone has dignity and is worth investing in,” Castro told HuffPost. “I also believe that our country is going to be better off if the most vulnerable — who face the most challenges — are able to prosper, because if the most vulnerable are able to prosper, that means all along the way, everybody else is going to be able to prosper, too.”

Like Harris and Buttigieg, a significant portion of Castro’s plan is dedicated to bolstering disability education. He promises to invest $120 billion in supporting students with disabilities over the next decade. This includes an additional $150 billion to “bridge the school modernization gap” and rebuild school infrastructures to ensure they’re ADA-compliant — a major policy proposal, since inaccessibility is a significant barrier for disabled students and often prevents people with disabilities from being fully included in public life.

In addition, the candidate plans to enforce Equity in IDEA, which specifically protects disabled students of color from being overidentified, segregated and disciplined, which further otherizes them from the nondisabled student population. The Equity in IDEA regulations issued in 2016 were a response to failings in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“We must not only improve our policy, but also change our culture. There are no second-class citizens in the United States,” the report states. “Standing up and fighting for the disability community is not a partisan or a political issue; it’s an issue of right and wrong, of going backwards or moving forward.”

Other proposals include raising the minimum wage to $15 and banning a loophole that allows employers to legally pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage, both of which were also included in Harris’s and Buttigieg’s disability policy plans.

And to help address the disproportionate effect that climate change has on disabled people who don’t have the resources to escape and recover from natural disasters, Castro will require state and local governments to develop evacuation plans that are inclusive of people with disabilities and hire workers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who specialize in addressing their needs. 

We must not only improve our policy, but also change our culture. There are no second-class citizens in the United States.
Julián Castro, 2020 presidential candidate

At least 450,000 additional units of accessible and affordable housing are also on the table for Castro, who served as mayor of San Antonio from 2009 until 2014, when he joined President Barack Obama’s Cabinet as the secretary of housing and urban development. It’s part of his pledge to end chronic homelessness by 2028, which will include a $50 billion investment. He has also promised to dedicate $120 billion toward implementing universal design standards to make mass transit accessible.

Health care and parenting rights are also listed as priorities in the “People First Disability Policy.” Castro, a proponent of universal health care, writes in the plan: “My vision for a healthier United States is to build a system based off Medicare while preserving Americans the flexibility to pursue private insurance through an employer, union, or large-unit negotiation.”

He pledges to eliminate the “benefit cliff,” which prevents Social Security Disability Insurance recipients from earning an income of more than $14,640 without losing their benefits, establish a national sick leave standard, and make sure that both Medicare and private insurance plans fully cover mental health care — part of the candidate’s promise to “end the distinction between physical and mental health care,” the plan states.

The report also briefly mentions Castro’s plan to eliminate lead poisoning, which he called “a major public health threat” in the United States when he introduced the policy proposal in June, becoming the first 2020 hopeful to introduce such a plan.

For families, Castro plans to reform the earned income tax credit to include “families with qualifying dependents, including the elderly and adults with disabilities,” in addition to children and siblings with disabilities. He also vows to end the marriage penalty, which discourages people with disabilities from getting married if it means that combining incomes with their spouse will make them ineligible to receive lifesaving health care benefits.

Over the weekend, Castro spoke with members of the disability community about their concerns at the Iowa Democratic Disability Caucus in Cedar Rapids. Topics they addressed at the forum included the lack of support for and shortage in caregivers, the need for more accessible infrastructure, and the shortage of resources for developmentally disabled youth who are transitioning into adulthood, he told HuffPost.

“As president, I’ll fight to empower and improve the lives of individuals with disabilities — in housing, jobs, education, accessibility, and elsewhere,” he wrote on Twitter. “Thank you to the Iowa Democrats’ Disability Caucus for having me at a forum focused on the needs of those with disabilities.”

In August, Castro shared an animal welfare plan to end the euthanasia of domestic dogs and cats in shelters, make animal cruelty a federal crime and improve federal housing policy for people who have pets.

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