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Disability Takes Center Stage at Latest Town Hall. Here's What You Might Have Missed.

Article updated Feb. 6 to include comments from Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders during the second part of CNN’s town hall on Thursday.

On Wednesday, CNN hosted the first of two town halls featuring the eight top Democratic presidential candidates ahead of the New Hampshire primaries next Tuesday. Facing off on the first night were Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), former Vice President Joe Biden, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. All four candidates put disability issues center stage. In the second town hall on Wednesday, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) also addressed questions about mental health and health care.

The four candidates on stage Wednesday delivered very different messages about disability. Biden gave a heartfelt monologue about growing up with a stutter while simultaneously alienating many in the disability community by saying it’s the only disability still mocked. Warren received praise for outlining points in her disability plan while Yang faced questions for saying he’s the first presidential candidate to speak openly about having an autistic child.

To make sure you don’t miss any of the biggest talking points for the disability community, here’s how each candidate addressed disability during the town hall:

Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden garnered mixed reactions from his comments about his stutter during the town hall. He was asked what advice he would give to college students who lived with a stutter their whole life. While revealing he often supports others who had similar experiences growing up, he commented that stuttering is the only disability people still mock.

“You know, stuttering, when you think about it, is the only handicap that people still laugh about,” Biden said. “The point I make to these young people that I still work with, is that in fact it’s critically important for them not to judge themselves by their speech, not let that define them.”

Many people in the disability community called Biden out for ignoring that many other types of disabilities are still mocked as well as his out-of-touch interactions with disabled people. Others, however, found his personal disclosures and compassionate approach to people with disabilities — even if misguided — a strength.

Pete Buttigieg

After coming out at as a top candidate in Iowa, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was ready to answer a question about mental health during the town hall. A mother who lost her daughter to mental health and addiction services pointed out that she had great difficulty finding evidence-based treatment for her daughter. She asked Buttigieg how he planed to eliminate disparities in mental health care.

“I think the first thing that has to change — before we get to the policy, I’ll come to the policy in a moment — but the first thing that has to change is a willingness to talk about this, because mental health struggles affect every family,” he said, adding:

We still sometimes talk about it like it’s a specialty issue, like it only affects a handful of people. And we’ve got to create a culture where it is as acceptable to talk about struggling with bipolar disorder as it would be to talk about a fight with cancer, where it is as routine to seek an emotional health checkup as it is a physical. If we make that change in how we talk about and think about serious mental illness and addiction, that makes it so much easier to get the policy right. And I will be a president who will give voice to those struggles.

Bernie Sanders

During his town hall hour, Bernie Sanders answered two questions related to health care, including that questioned why Sanders’ plan for universal health care is unique and how he plans to actually turn it into a reality. After pointing out that many other countries around the world have a universal health care system, he first underscored what he believes to be the root of the problem.

“We have not had the courage as a people to take on the greed and the corruption of the health care industry — the insurance companies and the drug companies,” Sanders said, adding:

Why do you think we are paying in some cases 10 times more for the same exact medicine sold in Canada or in Europe, 10 times more? And it has everything to do with the fact that the pharmaceutical industry over the last several decades has spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions. They buy Congress.

Sanders emphasized his plans for moving to a Medicare for All model that will save families more money and reduce medical costs in the U.S.

“The drug companies and the insurance companies will not buy me,” he added. “We are going to take them on in America. We will not pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs and we will in fact move to a Medical for All, single payer system.”

Tom Steyer

Described as a billionaire activist, presidential candidate Tom Steyer answered a question during the town hall from a deaf high school student who wanted to know how Steyer would “end the negative stigma and discrimination” directed toward people with disabilities. Steyer emphasized everyone deserves the same opportunities to succeed in life.

“Probably the biggest thing that I believe in is the idea that we’re in it together, that we succeed together, and that looking down or not investing and giving a chance to anybody who’s an American is something that to me is deeply wrong,” Steyer responded, adding:

Beyond that there is a question here about attitude that goes towards people with disabilities, people of different race, people with a different sexual orientation, or however we want to cut the American pie. 

Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren highlighted her disability plan in response to a question about how she plans to include people with disabilities. She explained how as she outlined her policy plans, she considered the needs of people with disabilities in each one, from housing to in the workplace, before realizing she needed a full disability plan. She built that plan alongside members of the disability community.

“I’m a woman with plans — I need a disability plan overall, and I thought, I’m not going to write this myself,” Warren said. “I’m going to reach out to the community, to the disability communities, and say, ‘What parts do we need to be able to build that equality.’ And over the past several months we’ve been working together and now we’ve come up with a disability plan.”

Warren then encouraged people to check out the full disability plan on her website before concluding with her intention to include people with disabilities from start to finish in her campaign and beyond.

“Take a look at it because it really talks about the places that we have so failed as a nation, but the places where there are so many opportunities, opportunities to build, to open, to be inclusive of people,” Warren said, adding:

As someone told me the other day, no matter how they walk or how they roll, to be a part of our campaign, to be part of my administration and to be a full and equal participant in this — everything that happens in our country. That’s what I want to do.

Andrew Yang

One of the most buzzed-about comments of the evening came from entrepreneur Andrew Yang about not being the first candidate to have an autistic family member but the first to openly speak about it. He mentioned this after he was asked how being the father of an autistic child would impact his policies if he’s elected president.

“We have to stop pretending that there’s normal and then there are people in this category of special needs and autistic because it’s the new normal,” Yang said, adding:

I’m not the first presidential candidate to have autism in my family … but for whatever reason, I’m the only one to talk about it openly and I think that’s very, very positive in terms of moving our country in the right direction and being able to support families and communities to a much higher level.

Yang’s comments led to speculation about what other presidential candidates (present or past) may have an autistic child. Many believed Yang was referring to President Donald Trump’s son, Barron, who people have speculated may be on the spectrum. The Trump family has not spoken about it publicly and Yang did not call out anyone specifically.


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Header image via CNN Politics’ Twitter

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