Read the rest of Professor Longmore's commentary here ....
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.
Paul K. Longmore is a professor of history and director, Institute on Disability, at San Francisco State University. He also wrote a commentary “Open letter to the disability rights constituency” that appeared exclusively at PatriciaEBauer last month.