By Paul K. Longmore
On Friday, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin delivered a talk on “special needs children” that’s being described as her “first major policy speech.” (“Palin’s Speech on Children with Special Needs,” October 24, 2008.)
As someone who grew up with a significant disability and faced bias and discrimination, I commend her for affirming the value of disabled children’s lives. Unfortunately she also indulges in a sentimentalism that undermines disability rights advocacy. But what’s most significant in this speech is her discussion of public policies. This is important to examine because, according to NBC News, some parents of kids with disabilities are “flocking” to her campaign events. Desperate to get politicians to pay attention to their difficult family situations, they are looking to her to be, as she promises, “a friend and advocate” tasked by John McCain to make “special needs children” one of her primary “missions.” Those parents—not to mention tens of millions of other voters with and without disabilities who are concerned about disability issues—want to know what policies a McCain-Palin or an Obama-Biden administration would pursue. So, what policies is Palin proposing, and what is her track record as an advocate?
In her speech, Palin said she would discuss “three policy proposals.” Her explanations of them turned out to be vague and unspecific.
I’ll take the third one first. It is the vaguest. She promised to “reform and refocus” the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, “modernizing” it so that “we can better serve students with disabilities in our high schools and community colleges.” What this means specifically is anybody’s guess.
Her first proposal has gotten the most attention: a McCain-Palin administration would give parents “choices” about what schools, whether public or private, they want to send their disabled children to. Apparently their administration would establish a voucher program.
Finally, she pledged full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that guarantees children with disabilities the right to go to public schools just like nondisabled children. Congress adopted that law in 1975 after years of lobbying by parents of disabled children. (Joe Biden was one of the original sponsors.) Before 1975, most such children were barred from public schools and got little or no education. Nowadays most go to school and graduate. But a major difficulty with IDEA all along has been that although Congress promised to provide up to 40% of the funding it has never fully appropriated those monies. Criticizing IDEA as a classic “unfunded mandate,” some districts have resisted parents of disabled children. Senators Obama and Biden have all along favored “full funding.” Sen. McCain nowadays says he does too, though in past years he repeatedly voted against it.
With regard to educational funding, in Friday’s speech Palin claimed that “as governor, I’ve succeeded in securing additional funding and assistance for students with special needs. By 2011, I will have tripled the funding available to these students.” But Alaska state legislator Mike Hawkins, author of the bill to increase that funding and a Republican, explained: “She had no role whatsoever” in developing the legislation. “Her role was signing.” CNN reported that the bill’s co-sponsors felt “frustrated… by [her] stepping in only at the last minute.”
Beyond that, Gov. Palin’s track record on public policies and programs affecting people with disabilities is not terribly encouraging about her as an advocate. Sonya Kerr, an Anchorage attorney specializing in disability rights, has sued the State of Alaska and Gov. Palin for failing to provide adequate services for children with disabilities. Kerr is representing a girl with autism. Meanwhile, Gov. Palin cut $125,000 in funding for assistive technology for people with disabilities. Alaskan disability rights advocates charge that before her acceptance speech she showed little interest in disability issues. “I can tell you she wasn’t a champion for disabled children as governor,” said one State Senator.
Many states have long “Developmental Disabilities Waiting Lists,” rosters of residents who are eligible for services such as in-home personal assistance and job training but are not getting them because their states have failed to fund those programs adequately. Estimates range from 300,000 to 400,000 people nationwide. (NOEWAIT — the National Organization to End the Waitlist) Even though Alaska’s government is awash in oil revenues, Gov. Palin has done nothing to reduce her state’s waiting list.
Colorado too has a long “Developmental Disabilities Waiting List,” 12,000 people with autism, cerebral palsy, and, like Palin’s infant son, Down syndrome who are not getting the vital services to which they are entitled. To remedy this problem, Colorado advocates put an initiative on the ballot, Amendment 51. It would reduce the waiting list by raising the state sales tax by a tiny percentage: just one cent on every $10 spent in each of the next two years.
Campaigning in Colorado last week, Palin said she opposes Amendment 51. “There’s got to be an alternative to raising taxes,” she said. “It’s a matter of prioritizing the dollars that are already there in government.” In her speech on Friday, Palin offered the same explanation of how a McCain-Palin administration would fund IDEA. “This is a matter of how we prioritize the money that we spend,” she said.
Bob Williams, former Deputy Assistant HHS Secretary for Disability, Aging and Long Term Care Policy who has a developmental disability himself, reacted indignantly. “Prioritize? Palin’s argument is the height of hypocrisy and naÃ¯vetÃ©. What is a state supposed to ‘prioritize’ or cut to fund community services for people with developmental disabilities? Pre K for all kids? Education? Services for people with other disabilities?” Williams called Palin’s position “politically and morally irresponsible.”
In her speech, Palin suggested one possible source of funding: “Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That’s more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. And where does a lot of that earmark money end up? It goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good—things like fruit fly research in Paris, France[.]”
The difficulty with this suggestion is that even if all of those $18 billion in “earmarks” were redirected exclusively to IDEA, that would not be enough to fund it fully. The McCain campaign itself estimates that full federal funding would cost $26 billion a year but says that a McCain-Palin administration would boost funding by only $3 billion annually. Palin did not mention these figures in her speech.
She also might have chosen an example other than “fruit fly research” to illustrate the wastefulness of earmarks if she actually knew as much about autism as Sen. McCain claims. (During his last debate with Sen. Obama, Sen. McCain declared that Palin knows “more about autism then anyone I know.”) It turns out that researchers using fruit flies—some of them government-funded—have advanced scientific understanding of the causes of autism. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070905123832.htm; http://localtechwire.com/business/local_tech_wire/biotech/story/1809660/;
In assessing Palin’s “policy speech” and her potential as an advocate, it is important to note the policy areas she failed to talk about.
She said nothing about health insurance, even though parents of children with disabilities and adults with disabilities often have trouble getting adequate coverage or any coverage at all. She did not mention the community-based personal assistance services that enable children (and adults) with disabilities to live in their own homes rather than being forced into nursing homes and institutions. She did not endorse the Community Choice Act that would guarantee Medicaid funding of personal assistance services. Nor did she promise to try to persuade her running mate to support CCA. He opposes it as too costly. (For a detailed analysis of the McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden positions on these policy issues see my posting “Palin Talks About Special Needs Children, But Obama Has Substantive Plans For All People With Disabilities,” October 3, 2008.)
She talked vaguely about reforming vocational rehabilitation to improve job training of youths with disabilities but didn’t talk about how to increase the employment prospects of adults with disabilities. In this as in all her speeches, she talked only about children and never about the nine out of ten Americans with disabilities who are adults. She said nothing about the job discrimination many of those adults confront, or the “work disincentives” in federal policies that deter millions of them from going to work.
In her speech, Palin indirectly mentioned prejudice and discrimination, though she never used those words. “Too often, even in our own day, children with special needs have been set apart and excluded,” she declared. “Too often, they are made to feel that there is no place for them in the life of our country, that they don’t count or have nothing to contribute.” But she did not pledge that a McCain-Palin administration would vigorously enforce the antidiscrimination protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws. She did not declare that they would ensure compliance with those statutes’ requirements of equal access and reasonable accommodations. To the contrary, Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain have declared that they will appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the very jurists who have consistently weakened laws protecting the rights of Americans with disabilities.
Finally, Gov. Palin claimed that many parents fear that Sen. Obama’s tax plan would raise taxes on the “special needs trusts” some families set up to cover medical and other costs. This is just a campaign scare tactic. Obama’s plan would not raise those taxes.
In contrast to the lack of specificity in Palin’s policy promises, Senators Obama and Biden have laid out a detailed and comprehensive “Plan to Empower Americans with Disabilities.” It addresses all of the issues Palin’s speech talks about vaguely or avoids altogether. Given the focus of her speech, it is particularly important to note that the Obama-Biden “Plan” outlines educational opportunities for young people with disabilities from early childhood through college and includes consideration of transition from school to work. Any parent of a child with a disability should check out the Obama-Biden “Plan.”
In comparison to that “Plan,” it seems a bit of a stretch to call Gov. Palin’s Friday talk “a major policy speech,” as many commentators have been doing. All along, it has been difficult to assess just what sort of advocacy Palin would offer because the McCain-Palin campaign has not provided specific disability policy positions. Donna M. Jones, National Coordinator of the Americans with Disabilities for McCain Coalition, declined to represent McCain-Palin at a candidates’ forum in Athens, Ohio, on October 12. In an e-mail to one of the organizers, she explained: “As we discussed on the phone, the McCain Campaign does not have a vetted disability policy to release at this time. I also do not have any further information on when we might be releasing a platform discussing the Senator’s stance on issues that relate to people with disabilities.”
It has been a month since Jones sent that e-mail. Given the limited focus and vague generalities of Palin’s Friday speech, one must conclude that the McCain-Palin campaign still lacks anything like a disability policy “platform” comparable to the Obama-Biden “Plan.”
Paul K. Longmore is a professor of history and director, Institute on Disability, at San Francisco State University. His “Open letter to the disability rights constituency” appeared exclusively on this site last month.