People With Disabilities Need More Than A Promise


At the 2008 Republican National Convention Governor Sarah
Palin, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, spoke directly to
families with special needs children.  "To
the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a
message," she began. "For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for
your sons and daughters.  I pledge to you
that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House."
Palin again addressed the issue during
the Vice Presidential debate, saying that working with families of children
with special needs would be one of her duties as Vice President. 

Like many people with a developmentally disabled family
member I welcome the introduction of the needs of the developmentally disabled
into national policy debates.  Special
needs children, including my autistic older brother, grow up to be adults with
special needs who depend on government programs for support.  When funding for those programs is
insufficient or eliminated, too often services are not delivered as a result
and families like mine struggle to fill the gap.  In light of the recent economic crisis, both
presidential campaigns have been asked what initiatives or programs they would
have to set aside due to lack of funding. 
Both have avoided giving specific answers, although McCain suggested he
would freeze funding for all programs except military spending, support for veterans
and entitlements.  But those of us with
developmentally disabled loved ones know all too well the specific impact
funding cuts have on services.  Many
programs serving Americans with special needs were under-funded before the
recent economic crisis and are now once again at risk of more cuts or even
elimination.

Although Palin has taken ownership of the disability issue,
Senator McCain has the Republican ticket’s record of action on the issue.  McCain was an original co-sponsor of the
landmark anti-discrimination law, the Americans
with Disabilities Act
(ADA),
and he has supported legislation to improve voting accessibility to people with
disabilities. McCain and Obama both supported the ADA Amendment Act, which
clarifies the protections of the ADA.  The Obama and McCain campaigns have done
outreach to the disability community and both campaigns have staffers working
to win the disability vote. The campaigns have also pledged to appoint a White
House staffer to focus on disability issues should they win the presidency. But
the McCain-Palin ticket has yet to offer a specific agenda to address the needs
of Americans with disabilities.  In
contrast, the Obama-Biden ticket has presented Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s
Plan to Empower Americans with Disabilities
.

When I became my 38 year-old autistic brother’s co-guardian
I was immediately launched into the world of funding battles in our home state of
Missouri
.  My brother is profoundly
autistic, dependent on government programs to fund everything from his
residential program and supported employment to healthcare and food.  But changes in federal policies between 2002
and 2005 have resulted in a severe financial crisis in Missouri that has in turn trickled down to
impact my brother’s life in the form of funding cuts. Tax cuts that have
reduced state revenue due to the link between federal and state tax systems,
the federal ban on state taxation of purchases made over the Internet and
unfunded mandates like No Child Left Behind have combined to cost Missouri an estimated $1
billion a year.  Missouri’s response to the budget challenges
of 2002-2005 was to cut deep.  Social
services took the largest cut in the state budget (40% of the total core budget
cut).

Over this time period, we saw an $11 million reduction in
funding for services for people with mental retardation and developmental
disabilities like respite care, day rehabilitation, and therapy.  As of July 2004, the state had a waiting list
of more than 4,000 individuals for residential services and non-residential
services.  Those burdens have shifted to
families and many disabled children and adults have been forced to go without
specialized care.

On the federal front, the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA), the federal law passed in 1975 that
mandates equal educational opportunity for children with disabilities, has been
under-funded since passage.  When the law
was enacted, the federal government promised it would fund 40 percent of the
additional costs that the law requires states to incur.  Federal funding over fiscal years 2002-2005
in Missouri
fell nearly $858 million short of meeting this goal. 

McCain’s
education plan
fails to mention specific funding for special education and
the McCain campaign has not proposed any increase in overall federal education
funding – and that includes funding for IDEA. 
In comparison, Senator Obama’s disability platform plan calls for IDEA
to be fully funded. 

The Community
Choice Act
presents another point of distinction between the
campaigns.  Proposed by Senator Tom
Harkin and co-sponsored by Senator Obama, the bill would make government funds
for institutional care available for home-based services so that more disabled
people could remain in their homes. Missouri’s
"family stipend" program, which helped some 800 families care for
their disabled children at home rather than institutionalizing them, was
completely eliminated in fiscal year 2004. McCain opposes the bill because of
concerns about cost.

While the debate over how to address the economic crisis
rages on and the presidential campaign closes in on Election Day, families with
disabled members are looking for more than a campaign promise without policy
and a funding pledge to back it up.  Many
of us know the impact of spending cuts and insufficient funding all too
well.  The economic crisis will further
hinder the ability of states to fund services, making full funding for IDEA and
passage of the Community Choice ACT necessary priorities for the next
president. 

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Pamela Merritt on twitter: @SharkFu

  • invalid-0

    Dear Professors Hayman and Atkins,

    Good morning to you both! This article caught my eye this morning, I just wanted to share – I thought it was really well-timed, relevant and responsibly written.

    Hope you are both well, see you next Monday.
    -Laura Handel

  • http://www.theluckypumpkin.com invalid-0

    Thanks for the well-written article. I agree that we need to seriously address funding for developmentally disabled children and adults.

  • http://stevenspeakshismind.blogspot.com/ invalid-0

    Ms. Merritt,

    As the brother of a teenage boy suffering from Angelman’s Syndrome, I’d like to thank you for writing this article. Too often people with disabilities go unnoticed by our politicians and fall by the wayside, missing out on funding and programs that may help them. It’s always been a constant struggle for people with disabilities to get increased representation in the government and this election is no different. Hopefully if we continue to reach many more people we can someday garner some added voice to push for more disability reform. In our case, we are receiving little to no support from the government to care for my brother and are hoping that this election somethings will change and individuals with disabilities will have more of an impact.