Thursday, October 02, 2008

Kathi Wolfe: Campaigns need to address disability issues

Kathi Wolfe is a legally blind writer and poet in Fall Church, Va., who often writes about disability issues. The following Progressive Media Project op-ed about the presidential campaign appeared in The News Observer, North Carolina.

At last, the issue of disability has surfaced in a presidential race.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has repeatedly pledged to be an advocate for parents of children with special needs. On the Democratic side, Sen. Joe Biden has voiced his concern for children with disabilities.

Yet neither campaign is addressing the issues - from health care to education to employment to access to technology - that are of vital concern to people with disabilities, like myself. We often have the greatest need for medical care, but the most difficulty obtaining health care coverage.

Frequently, we can't obtain (individual) private health insurance because our disabilities are considered pre-existing conditions. Millions of us depend on Medicare or Medicaid (two troubled, underfunded government programs) for our health care. Others who don't qualify for Medicare or Medicaid end up being uninsured.

Parents struggle daily to obtain health care coverage for their children with special needs. They worry about how their offspring will get the medical care they'll need when they become adults. Yet the candidates aren't talking about what can be done to address the health care struggles of people like us and our families.

Nothing is more important to anyone's development than education. This is especially true for people with disabilities. Many of us would not be part of society or the workplace if we had not had the chance to obtain an education. I wouldn't be a writer today if my mother hadn't fought for my right to an education when I was a child.

Today, years since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was passed in 1975, people with disabilities still face discrimination in schools - from kindergarten to high schools to colleges. To combat this prejudice, the act needs to be fully funded and enforced. But I don't hear the presidential campaigns talking about how to do this.

Though many of us are able and willing to work, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is 70 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Frequently, we're unemployed because of prejudice (some employers don't want to hire disabled people) or barriers (such as the lack of wheelchair ramps or other forms of accommodation). Neither Sens. John McCain nor Barack Obama has spoken on the stump about how to remove these barriers.

Internet-based technologies such as social networks are rapidly changing how our culture operates. Yet, because many of these innovations are inaccessible if you're blind or deaf, people like me are often being left behind in this technological revolution. Even the Web sites of the presidential candidates aren't accessible to disabled people, according to the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet.

There are 51 million Americans with disabilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In this presidential campaign, the candidates have an opportunity to pay more than lip service to our issues. I hope they will seize it.

Readers may write to Kathi Wolfe at Progressive Media Project,