MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to turn now to the upcoming presidential election. November 3 is fast approaching, and many analysts are saying that one of the challenges facing the presumptive Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, is convincing progressives to get behind him.
Last week, a task force appointed by Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders issued a set of joint policy recommendations meant to unify moderate and progressive Democrats in support of Biden. But some progressive favorites like "Medicare for All" were not on the list.
This is where Ady Barkan comes in. Barkan was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, three years ago, just months after the birth of his first child. ALS is an aggressive neurological disease, and the data suggests that Barkan likely has just a few more years ahead of him. So he has committed those years to fighting for health care reforms, he says, so no one has to struggle to keep up with insurance paperwork and doctor's bills the way he's had to.
Barkan's activism has attracted a lot of attention from other progressive activists. He's currently collaborating with NowThis News and Cricket Media on a series of online interviews called Uncovered: Health Care Conversations with Ady Barkin. He's spoken to health care workers, activists and patients about their experiences navigating the health care system.
And in the lead-up to the 2020 election, he sat down with many of the Democratic presidential candidates, from Pete Buttigieg to Elizabeth Warren. This week, it was former Vice President Biden's turn.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ADY BARKAN: It's no secret that I support Medicare for All.
JOE BIDEN: I don't.
BARKAN: And then I endorsed Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the primary.
BIDEN: Both good people.
BARKAN: You made clear your opposition to single-payer "Medicare for All." But in recent months, 20 million Americans have lost their jobs, and many have lost their health insurance with it. Do you see a future where health insurance is no longer tied to employment? Will America ever have a single-payer system where health care is guaranteed as a human right?
BIDEN: Health care guaranteed as a human right, but taking away the right to have a private plan if you want a private plan I disagree with.
MARTIN: Although they disagree on this key point, Ady Barkan has decided to formally endorse Joe Biden. We wanted to hear from Barkan about this decision, but I need to share something with you. Because he is living with ALS and has lost the ability to speak without technological intervention, we sent him a few questions ahead of time. That's something we never do. But that is the only way we could make this interview possible. And Ady Barkan is with us now.
Ady Barkan, welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.
BARKAN: Michel, thanks for your interest in my work and having me on the program.
MARTIN: So here's a question we sent you ahead of time. Since this is radio, would you mind describing how you are able to speak with us?
BARKAN: Over the past four years, I went from being a healthy 32-year-old man to being almost completely paralyzed thanks to the shocking onset of a mysterious neurological illness called ALS. ALS usually doesn't affect the eye muscles. I navigate the world and communicate using a computer tablet mounted on my wheelchair in front of my face. It has a special bar that uses infrared light to track precisely where I am looking on my screen. So I type out words one letter at a time, and then I use a synthetic vocalizer to turn the text into audible speech.
I used to have a melodious, baritone, nasally Jewish voice, perfect for NPR. Now my accent is more California cyber, but I am learning to embrace it.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Another question you already received - you previously supported Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, so why now Biden? And why do you think others should vote for him as well?
BARKAN: I think it's vitally important that he win the election. Even though he wasn't our first choice, I don't think that progressives and democratic socialists should sit out the election or vote third-party, and I wanted to make that clear. I recently had the privilege of talking to Joe Biden mediated not only by my cyborg voice but also 3,000 miles and Zoom. He and I have meaningfully different perspectives on the world - not only on what ails it but on what we must do to address those maladies.
And yet, despite the literal and figurative distances between us, I know that the vice president heard what I was saying. He listened, he understood and he promised to continue doing both after he is elected. Joe Biden has suffered tremendous loss in his life. But he has turned that loss into purpose. And he has used his personal tragedies as bridges to connect with the suffering and humanity of others.
We have witnessed the danger of a selfish president. What a relief it will be to live in a country with a compassionate president who understands what it means to be in fellowship with others in the face of difficulty, in the pursuit of happiness.
I think that all of the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have gone through a period of mourning because we were hoping for a different outcome. But I decided to endorse Biden after that period was over because I realized that our struggles for social justice did not begin under this president, and they will not end under the next one. They began long before we were born, and it is our duty to pass them on to succeeding generations. Winning this election is only one page in that long story, but it is the page in front of us today.
MARTIN: I do want to say that as I think people can hear from what you're telling us now, your conversation with Joe Biden was wide-ranging. It was very emotional. At one point, you asked him what his late son, his much-loved son Beau, would be saying to the American people about Biden's character if he were still alive. I just want to play that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BIDEN: I think - I hope he'd be saying that my father is totally authentic. Whatever he says he'll do, he will try to do. He'll never mislead you. When he makes a mistake, he'll tell you he made a mistake and take responsibility. And even if it's not popular, he will push things that he feels are a matter of principle that relate to our values.
MARTIN: Ady, I have a follow-up, though. What do you say to progressives who say that's not enough? We need specific policy commitments, and we need them now.
BARKAN: I agree that compassion and integrity is not enough. We certainly do need policy commitments now. We are facing the worst public health crisis in a century, a Great Depression and climate catastrophe.
Joe Biden needs to display bold leadership, and that is why I pushed him on many policy issues in our interview, including reducing funding for police and investing in genuine community safety like affordable housing, good jobs and mental health care. So I agree that he needs to be bold now. And hopefully, when he takes office in January, it is our job as a progressive movement to push Congress and push Biden to do right by the American people.
MARTIN: That was Ady Barkan. He is the founder of the Be A Hero Fund and the host of Uncovered: Health Care Conversations with Ady Barkan. And I just want to say again that we recorded this conversation earlier in order to remove the lengthy pauses that are required for us to communicate.
Ady Barkan, thank you so much for talking to us. And I do hope we'll talk again.
BARKAN: Thanks very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARLING AND CAMERON'S "ZONA SUL COCKTAIL MIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.