Search This Blog

Monday, October 27, 2008

Power, Courage and Disability

My weekend was a bust. On Saturday our power went out and I was reminded just how dependent I am on electricity. While I coped well without an oven, toilets that flushed, phone, television, and internet service, my son was beside himself. Teenagers are so hooked into electronics and the internet it is almost comical to watch them function without them. I write almost because I too struggled without what has become essential. For instance, I missed watching a stirring comeback win for the NY Rangers. I also could not post a thing about Sarah Palin's first policy speech.

Having had a few extra days to think about Palin's speech concerning "special needs children" I am far from impressed. I did not expect much to come of her speech and sadly I was not disappointed. Other bloggers have commented about the specifics of what Palin said. Special Needs Truth 08, Wonk Room, and Go Becky have parsed the facts as stated by Palin. Two things struck me about Palin's speech: First, it was not really a "policy" speech. Maybe I am too cynical but I thought the aim of the speech was identical to all the other stump speeches Palin has delivered, specifically intended to prompt a sentimental response. Do not misunderstand me: there is nothing wrong with being sentimental, it is part of the campaign rhetoric designed to sway voters. Rather, I hasten to point out that all the sentiment in the world is not going to help "special needs children" or the adults they will become. Absolutely no new ground was broken by Palin and her three proposals, more choice for the parents of children with special needs, fully funding IDEA, and "reform and refocus". Good luck trying with "reform and refocus", a concept that is vague and, after reading her speech three times, I still have no clue what it means. As for giving parents who have a disabled child greater choice, this sounds great. But this choice does not mean disabled children are welcome in either public or private schools. The social and cultural isolation disabled children encounter is not necessarily related to the school they attend but the educators that operate those schools. These educators are under intense pressure to stretch limited resources and disabled children will be perceived by some as an odious financial burden. Finally, IDEA has been under funded since its inception. With McCain's governmental spending freeze I am at a loss as to how more money will be available for this program.

The unoriginal policies advocated by Palin brings me to my second point. There is a cultural divide in this country between those with and those without a disability. This divide exists because American society is unwilling to accept and include disabled people in routine social interaction. That is, the social structure of our society operates under the assumption that disabled people foremost "problem" is a physical or cognitive deficit. This is simply wrong. Based on my experience, the vast majority of disabled people rarely if ever complain about their disability nor do they consider it an impediment to leading a rich and fulfilling life. The "problem" is not one's disability but rather the added prejudice that is placed on top of a given physical or cognitive disability. While no one I know wakes up and thinks they will purposely discriminate against disabled people, this lack of specific intent does not make bigoted actions magically disappear. Thus what I had hoped to hear from Palin was a shift in her unrelenting rhetoric about helping "children with special needs". What I had hoped was that she would reframe her understanding of "special needs children" to a broader civil rights approach to disability. This did not take occur and I wonder if it ever will.

On the day she gave her speech Palin was welcomed by the Down Syndrome Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Palin has also spoken to many families who have a child with special needs. Surely an individual has told Palin about the social struggles they have endured. I am equally sure a policy analyst has told her about the difference between a medical and social model of disability. In spite of this, Palin has not budged from her sentimental focus on "special needs children" and totally ignored the existence of disabled adults. I realize change is not easy and this is why I think Palin has failed to connect with a myriad of disability rights groups or garner the support of adults with a disability. At this time she lacks the will and courage to foster real change. By change I mean support the civil rights of all disabled people and focus the issue squarely within a human rights framework. She could do this by talking about the ADA, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, oppressive Supreme Court decisions such as the Sutton Trilogy or why the ADA Restoration Act was needed. All this could be done with direct reference to her son Trig who will be affected directly by these issues. In short, what bothered me the most about Palin's speech was that she lost an opportunity to make a fundamental difference in the public debate about the meaning and significance of disability in American society.

No comments: