Wednesday, October 15, 2008

John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Children with Special Needs

I don't know if I've mentioned it here before, but my younger brother, who is 18, has Down Syndrome. While I wouldn't say that a candidate's views on people with disabilities are one of my primary concerns, I do pay attention to them and they do matter to me. Talking about Palin in the debate tonight, McCain said:

And by the way, she also understands special-needs families. She understands that autism is on the rise, that we got to find out what's causing it and we've got to reach out to these families and help them and give them the help they need as they raise these very special needs children.

She understands that better than almost any American that I know.
I'm sure this mention is supposed to appeal to people like me while simultaneously, and more importantly, helping the Republican ticket look particularly compassionate to the general electorate. Taking care of the disabled is one of those things we're supposed to feel all virtuous about, right? But I can't help but resent the way they trot her baby out for political gain.

I also hate how McCain, and certain Palin believers, act like she's some sort of poster mom for mothers of children with disabilities. Sarah Palin is one of many mothers in the US who have a child with a disability. 1 out of every 800-1000 children born in the US has Down Syndrome. 5000 a year. I believe that overall about 350,000 families throughout the country include someone with Down Syndrome. And that doesn't even take into account the great many families that include a person with a different disability. Does she understand better than all those many family members?

Also, her son is what, 6 months old? The big challenges and struggles come later than that, and Sarah Palin hasn't experienced them yet. Nor does she have a background of working with and for children with special needs. Eventually she'll really "understand special-needs families." But now? In part, sure. But on the whole I'm skeptical. That's not an attack on her. How could she really? There are so very many people in America who I am sure understand better than she does. And if she really understands, "better than almost any American that [McCain] know[s]," than that's an indication of his ignorance not her expertise.

Beyond that, I talked to my mother tonight and her biggest complaint was that McCain when talked about Sarah Palin's devotion to children with special needs he didn't even mention Down Syndrome but instead talked about autism. They're, well, just not the same. I would assume Palin knows that. If, that is, she knows anything about autism. But it seems like McCain doesn't really. My mother thought it made him look ignorant when it comes to people with disabilities. I don't disagree.

When Obama responded to McCain's mention of special needs, he said,

I do want to just point out that autism, for example, or other special needs will require some additional funding if we're going to get serious in terms of research. That is something that every family that advocates on behalf of disabled children talks about. And if we have a across-the-board spending freeze, we're not going to be able to do it. That's an example of, I think, the kind of--the use of the scalpel that we want to make sure that we're funding some of those programs.

And he's right. Research costs money. So, too, does special education, for which Sarah Palin cut funding as a governor. I think that's probably a decision she'll come to regret as her own child through school and she sees where all that money goes. In his eighteen years of life my brother has had physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists. He's had personal aides and been a part of small classrooms. He's gone to special schools. That kind of stuff isn't cheap, and thankfully it is government funded. But parents have to fight for it. They have to know their rights and go in and advocate for their children or get someone else to do it for them. My mother worked as a volunteer parent advocate. Getting these kids into the right educational situation isn't easy.

But how did McCain respond?

But again, I want to come back to--you know, notice, every time, Senator Obama says, "We need to spend more. We need to spend more. That's the answer." Why do we always have to spend more? Why can't we have transparency, accountability, reform of these agencies of government?
Obama was talking about funding for families with special needs and McCain comes back with the need for transparency, accountability, and reform of government agencies as good alternatives to increased funding? Does he even understand the problem? It's not a lack of transparency and accountability. The exchange didn't exactly fill me with confidence. Let me be clear. I don't think Barack Obama is going to come into office and suddenly improve the situation of people with disabilities throughout the country. I find his general embrace of science to be comforting, but I realize that special education and services for people with special needs are probably nowhere near a priority for him. I wouldn't expect them to be. But he's not the one trotting out his running mate's understanding of "special-needs families"--a phrase I detest, by the way--for political gain. And I don't think a McCain-Palin administration would be helpful either. Actually, given McCain's advocacy for a spending freeze and cuts, cuts, cuts, it could be genuinely harmful.


Mark said...

It's true. You know SO much more than Palin about these issues, and it's insulting for McCain to make these false claims. Last night he said she knows more about these issues than "almost any American I know." And last week he said she is "uniquely qualified" to cure autism. There's only one way to fight back -- vote against them Nov. 4. And read

Meg said...

Hi, Mark. Thanks so much for the link to your blog. I'm looking at it right now and it's really interesting and informative stuff. I had every intention of voting for Obama anyway, but the fact that his plans do seem more beneficial to families that include people with disabilities is certainly one more reason to feel good about that vote.

You're right, it is insulting when McCain sets her up as an expert. Not so much to me--while at times quite difficult, it's far easier to be the sibling of someone with a disability than it is to the parent and I don't consider myself unusually knowledgeable--but to the people who are so much more involved on a day to day basis. All the folks who are down in the trenches, so to speak, fighting to get people with disabilities, whether family members or otherwise, the services and help they deserve.