Janine Jackson interviewed Rebecca Cokley about the GOP ‘Tax on Disability’ for the December 8, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: A GAO report found that many states with voucher programs and education savings accounts don’t inform parents of students with disabilities how their rights change when a child transfers to private school through a “choice program.” Private schools aren’t subject to some of the same legal safeguards, like the requirement to provide something like speech therapy. About half of the private schools the GAO surveyed offered little or no information about special education services on their websites.
But that’s offensive, says the Trump Education Department: “The report unfairly assumes that parents who transfer a child with disabilities to a private school are unaware of how their rights will change.” An official explained:
Parents may believe that educational benefits or services provided by private schools to their children with disabilities outweigh any rights conferred by [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] or services provided by public schools.
Undermining rights and saying it’s about freedom is par for the course for this White House, but this Washington Post piece by Moriah Balingit was rare in its focus on the particular impact of that worldview, if you will, on people with disabilities. Despite being hit first and worst by policies from taxes to healthcare to employment, the millions of Americans with disabilities are at best, it seems, an afterthought for corporate media.
Joining us now to share some of the stories we could be hearing more of is Rebecca Cokley. Formerly executive director of the National Council on Disability, she’s now a senior fellow working on disability policy at the Center for American Progress. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Rebecca Cokley.
Rebecca Cokley: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.
JJ: As with other underrepresented groups, the problem is not just an absence of stories about people with disabilities, it’s the absence of people with disabilities from all the stories where they rightfully belong. For example, the tax plan Republicans are pushing through Congress—it’s staggering, really, in its negative impacts on working-class people, on students, on poor people. And there’s critical coverage, I would say it’s not urgent enough—but I really haven’t seen much attention at all on what the potential effects, from the indications we have, what this legislation could mean for people with disabilities. What are some of those effects?
RC: I think when you think about the impact of this tax bill, it’s equally critical in terms of just how wide the impact is going to be, as well as how deep. We know that there are roughly 54 million Americans with disabilities, and where traditionally we may be always thinking about the community as, you know, white disabled men using wheelchairs, this are also cancer survivors, disabled veterans, people with chronic health conditions. And so this tax bill will impact them on multiple fronts.
Obviously, in terms of their healthcare, we know that eliminating the medical deduction is going to have a huge impact. We know in 2015, it helped 8.8 million families being able to take off medical bills that exceeded 10 percent of their income. Whether it be for prosthetic devices, devices to make their homes more accessible, any number of different things that allow people with disabilities to live more comfortably, that would be gone in an instant. I think as well, for people with more obscure, or what they refer to as “orphan,” medical conditions, things like Lou Gehrig’s disease, cystic fibrosis, cutting back the research and development budget on those issues to create drugs and treatments, it really is going to impact their very livelihood.
JJ: When you talk about something like not being able to deduct things that might make a home more accessible, if you think about it, you can see that that can mean the difference between being able to stay in your home or not, and it’s not simply about getting a few more dollars back at the end of the year. These are real life-changing impacts.
RC: Definitely. I grew up in a family where my dad became paralyzed when I was a year and a half, and my parents were able to use that deduction, when I was a kid, to be able to pay for a wheelchair ramp. Had we not had that ramp, he wouldn’t have been able to take me to school, he wouldn’t have been able to fully participate as the husband, the father, the employee working at the Center for Independent Living, and the community leader that he was.
JJ: And one of the things that you have noted is something like student loans. You think, well, that’s about students and you forget, OK, some students are people with disabilities. You know, you have to recognize that overlap. And it’s not that raising taxes for people with students loans is aimed at people with disabilities, but it also becomes a factor there, just for example.
RC: No, definitely. I think we know that costs for students with disabilities are so high for so many reasons. If somebody was on Social Security before, prior to going to college, they may be going through a redetermination process, they may have lost some benefits. And so they could be dealing with a loss of benefits and then the loss of the student loan tax deduction on top of that, which would be extremely financially taxing for students with disabilities.
JJ: Another thing that we are seeing pointed out in some coverage is that with this tax plan, with this GOP plan, it’s not just the impact of what it does, it’s that we can look down the road and see that, with its impact on the deficit, we’re going to see results in terms of cuts to programs. And that’s kind of the other shoe falling, if you will, of this Republican plan. And there again, on that end of it, there will be a special impact for people with disabilities.
RC: I definitely think, I mean, you’re talking about potential cuts within education, within vocational rehabilitation, the ability for disabled people to transition from school into the workforce. Watching those funds be depleted to pay for this tax bill is frankly unacceptable. Now, at the same time that we’re seeing Congress attack the Americans with Disabilities Act through HR 620, which would weaken Title III of the ADA, this tax bill also eradicates tax credits for businesses to make themselves more accessible, and for businesses to hire disabled people.
And so we’re saying to people with disabilities, at the same time that we’re stripping the law that gives us the ability to go to the bank, the law that gives us the ability to go to the movies, that we’re going to make it harder for that bank to hire us, that we’re going to make it harder for that movie theater to offer a job to a teenager with a disability, because we’re going to remove the tax credit for either making their business accessible, or the tax credit for hiring disabled people.
JJ: Well, that actually was going to be a separate question. If disability were really a tended beat, everyone would know about the so-called ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. You’ve just outlined what that would do. And, yes, we are right to raise our eyebrows at the word “reform” of the American With Disabilities Act.
JJ: Finally, you were part of an event about how the disability community has reshaped progressive politics, and I think that for a lot of folks who are looking to organizers and to activism in this historical moment, there has been leadership from the disability community, from folks like ADAPT. What do you think are some of the lessons that folks can take from disability activism in particular?
RC: Well, I think we’ve always been here, and that’s one of the things that is kind of cheeky to me. You can date disability engagement and civil disobedience back to FDR and the Works Progress Administration. And so it’s been really refreshing to see folks recognize that, no, we have been here consistently.
And I think the important thing, also, is that we’ve seen disability activism take shape in different ways over the last year. We saw several thousand women with disabilities participate in the Women’s March, thanks to leadership by Mia Ives-Rublee, who was the disability coordinator for that particular march. We’ve seen, obviously, the summer of ADAPT, which was really powerful. We’ve also seen online activism through initiatives like #DisabilityTooWhite, which was framed, by my colleague Vilissa Thompson, to really focus on the imagery that’s put out in the media, as it relates to what disability looks like and what disability stories tend to get coverage.
And so I think it’s been refreshing to see ADAPT heralded as a hero of this work, and at the same time, it’s also been an educational opportunity to talk to people about what it is that ADAPT is specifically fighting for. For while they’re fighting to maintain our healthcare, they’re also fighting for some necessary changes, to allow people with disabilities to be able to work and live in their communities, to allow people with disabilities to have access to the supports and services that they need to not be forced into a nursing home.
JJ: It’s nice that it’s in a spotlight, but it’s not brand new; it’s been going on.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Rebecca Cokley. She’s a senior fellow working on disability policy at the Center for American Progress. They’re online at AmericanProgress.org. Rebecca Cokley, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
RC: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.