Friday, 15 February 2013

State of the Union Address: Disabled People Absent Yet Again

I watched Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, which will be no big news to regular readers who know that I generally watch the Stateof the Union addresses. I thought it was a little long, and definitely more political than Obama's past State of the Union addresses. However,  I was surprised (pleasantly) by most of it. I don't know that he'll be able to do everything that he plans (and I do like the plans that he's laid out, particularly raising minimum wage) without either raising taxes or increasing the deficit, and I don't think that the GOP is going to let him to do either of those.

It will be interesting to see how this all pans out.

As much as I like what Obama said in his State of the Union address, I was also interested by what he didn't say.

State of the Union Address - What I Didn't Hear

I didn't hear anything about disabled people. Not new, but as disappointing as ever, considering that 57 000 000 people in the United States are disabled. Issues that affect the middle class (ostensibly the State of the Union address's primary focus, although I thought that it wandered a bit) definitely affect the disabled:

  • Employment - The unemployment rate for disabled people has consistently been almost twice that for non-disabled people since long before the election, with nothing from Obama or Romney on a plan to address it. How will the manufacturing and technology jobs being created in or brought back into the United States fit into a plan to get disabled people back to work as well as non-disabled people? Obama's thought about incentives to employers who are willing to give people who have been out of the workforce a long time a chance - what about incentives to employers who demonstrate a commitment to making their businesses accessible and their hiring policies such that qualified disabled candidates have the same chance of being hired as non-disabled candidates? 

  • Pre-school Education - Obama outlined a plan in his State of the Union address to "make high-quality preschool available to every child in America." My question is, is every child truly going to get this running start at academic success? Will all preschools be required to be fully accessible, then? Will they have support staff, or capacity to bring in support staff, for children with physical needs that need assistance with activities with daily living throughout the day? Will trained staff be available to make sure that children with a variety of developmental and learning needs get the high-quality preschool for which their non-disabled peers are eligible?

  • Secondary Education - The assumption that intellectually disabled students, severely learning disabled students, and autistic students can't go on to some sort of post-secondary education is far too widespread. The new curriculum that Obama proposes needs to adaptable enough so that students with a wide range of capabilities can complete it, and cuts to education can't decimate support staff in schools to the point where disabled students can't get what they need to succeed. Schools also need to redefine "college material" to take care that their criteria for who they will and won't explore post-secondary options doesn't become exclusionary. More attention to transition planning during the IEP process may be required, as well as and enlisting assistance from outside agencies to be sure that it's implemented. Again, disabled students are just as entitled to a chance to benefit from Obama's changes to accessing post-secondary education and to benefit from it when possible as non-disabled students are (See this article. "Redefining College Material", for a perspective on this...

  • Health Care - Obama talked a lot about Medicare, the Affordable Health Care Act and seniors in the State of the Union address, but said nothing about disabled people and their families.  I gather, from what I've read, that the States are in charge of supports of this nature. However, many people end up paying for health care supports, therapeutic supports, respite services (not to mention supportive equipment, adapted vehicles and renovations to make housing accessible). Insurance covers some of it, but not without a battle. For a family with even two people working full-time on minimum wage, raising a child from birth to 18 with even moderate disabilities could mean incurring a large amount of debt. For the record, the United States has no monopoly on this - Canada is not meeting the needs of families supporting disabled people well either.

  • Voting Rights - It's wonderful that 103-year-old Carrie Williams felt strongly enough about voting last November that she waited in line six hours to do it. And wonderful that at 103 years old she was hardy enough to do so! But there are many, many disabled people out there that simply would not have been able to wait that long, so good for Obama for addressing this issue in his State of the Union address. However, any election makes me wonder who has been helping intellectually disabled people to understand what's going on. Do they know that they can vote? Do they understand what's at stake? Who is doing this work with them? This is much more difficult work to coordinate, but just as important as any other voting issue. See what I wrote about this during Ontario's last provincial's election:  Also (and someone else will have to tell me this, since I don't know), what's the accessibility situation at American polling stations? Is this something that needs improvement?

I liked Obama's State of the Union address, overall. It appealed to the idealistic part of me. But the pragmatic part of me says, even realizing that he can't get into all the specific details of these plans in State of the Union address, is screaming, "If you're not even going to mention a group comprised of fifty seven million people in forty-five minutes, why should I trust that there's any room in your plans for them?"

Disabled people deserve a shot at the American Dream too. They are American citizens too.

President Obama, I told you that I would be watching. Please don't let me down.

Full transcript of the State of the Union address: 

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