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Friday, 31 January 2014

State of the Union...State of Whose Union?

Well. Another State of the Union address came and went this week.

I came to this State of the Union address a little less enthusiastic about Obama than I have been in the past, a sentiment that I think many share these days. I'm disappointed that some of the promises that he ran on the first time around, like closing Guantanomo Bay, haven't been kept. I'm disillusioned (but not particularly surprised) by the revelations in the past year about the NSA's activities. Now that I'm seeing what Obamacare looks like...and seeing how different it was from what I thought it was going to be...I'm questioning, asking, "Is this what Americans call universal health care? Damn it, you're not doing it right!"

Do I still believe wholeheartedly that he and Biden were the lesser of two evils in 2012? I wouldn't change a thing about how that election turned out, because...well, let's not get into that right now.

Back to the State of the Union address.

Let's Get the Big Stuff Out of the Way

While I certainly think it's appropriate to highlight and show a great deal of appreciation for the service and commitment to country of a young man like Cory Remsberg, who did ten military deployments...damn it, damn it, damn it, I wish that the Democrats would stop using disabled people to emotionally manipulate the audience during speeches! They did it with Gabby Giffords during the Democratic National Convention, and when I saw that Obama was working up it in the State of the Union address the other night, it just annoyed me to no end. Why? Because it's exploitative and disrespectful. And, in Remsberg's case, it was amazingly hypocritical, in light of the fact that services for veterans in general in the United States (and in Canada - my country doesn't get a free pass in this area) are so disgustingly inadequate.

And yes it's certainly wrong that women still make 77 cents to the male dollar, and that the minimum wage is so low. In light of the attention that President Obama gave these issues in the State of the Union address, I really wish that he'd once and for all close the damn legislative loophole that's allowing organizations like Goodwill to pay disabled workers as low as $0.22 an hour for work for which non-disabled people would receive minimum wage. All this talk of being for the American worker sounds very disingenuous otherwise. Obama be striving to make labour conditions better for *all* Americans, not just the non-disabled ones.

Now that I've got that out of my system...

Ableism in the State of the Union Address

The truth is, besides the bit about Remsberg, and some promises about how Wounded Warriors was going to be reformed and the backlog on veterans' disability claims addressed (with no details about how he plans to do either of these things), there was nothing in the State of Union address for disabled people - and I'm fairly convinced it's because no one really thought of them while the State of the Union address was being written.  From the very basic language to the grand vision, the State of the Union address painted a picture of America where disabled people only occupy a very small corner in veteran's hospitals.

Which just a bit more acknowledgement of disabled people than in Obama's past State of the Union addresses. Business as usual, otherwise: Lots of grand ideas and great-sounding plans - for people who are non-disabled, whose children are non-disabled, who are disabled but can hold down jobs and support themselves.  I sometimes wonder just how many politicians truly realize that disabled people actually (gasp!) experience discrimination on the basis of disability. You might wonder if Obama has truly internalized the idea, given that the two times in the State of the Union Address that he listed the personal characteristics on which he believed that people shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against others (religion, sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.), he didn't mention disability, or something akin to it...something that acknowledges a belief that ableism is wrong.

I thought about situations under which I'd be willing to let this go:

  • If he was speaking off the top of his head, and it was simply an omission.

  • If there wasn't a teleprompter

  • If disabled people weren't the world's largest minority Read more here

But maybe not even in those circumstances, because the omission, by the most powerful man in the world, of disabled people as group that experiences discrimination, sends a message. It tells the world that ableism isn't a big deal and that both specific disability-related issues facing America as a country (such as last year's failure to ratify the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the renewed energy behind getting it ratified) and the larger issues facing it as a member of the world community aren't important.

If he doesn't think ableism is a big deal, why should anyone else? Even if his message wasn't deliberate, it was powerful. It made me wonder (as it has when listening to all of his State of the Union addresses) how, when he explains his grand visions, disabled people fit into them...or if they're going to have a place at all.

Like I Said, Business as Usual

Which is to say, this State of the Union address left me with the same questions that basically the last one did...which shouldn't shock me, according to Politco, where I read today that Obama's State of the Union addresses are even more formulaic that I remember them being (Read more here), but still...:

  • Will high-quality pre-kindergarten programming, "real-world education and hands-on training" in high school, and increased access to post-secondary education really be available to "every child"? Will supports be available in the schools so that students with every variety of disability, from the moment that they start school, will not only learn that they have more options upon high school graduation than going to work in a sheltered workshop, but that they get the education that they need to pursue those options?

  • How will these job training programs that Joe Biden is going to put in place address the entire problem of high unemployment (much higher than than for non-disabled people) rates for disabled people? If the experience of "every" job seeker in America should be that they should easily be able to find work, then not only do a whole lot of disabled people who have been out of work a long time need job training that accommodates a variety of learning styles, physical needs, and challenges arising from social barriers (cost, accessibility, transportation, etc.), then employers need training as well. Disabled workers are still a largely untapped labour market of immensely qualified people. Outdated fears about accommodations and stigma about disability make employers wary of them. What's the administration's plan to address these challenges?

  • What will Obama's administration do to address the challenges that disabled people have with the voting process? Will they be included for consideration when the process is re-engineered so that no one has to wait for more than half an hour to vote? Does this mean that the President is willing to take a good, hard look at accessibility of voting stations?  Transportation, especially in rural areas? Accommodations for people with low or no vision, or who can't read, or who have learning or intellectual disabilities, or who don't have use of their arms and can't write, or whose wheelchair can't fit into a voting booth...do I need to go on?

State of the Union...State of Whose Union?

From a policy standpoint, I really don't see what about "Americans have disabilities" is so hard to get. 57.6 million Americans had in disabilities in 2010 (Read more here). 2010. Four years ago. The population is aging, so no one should be planning for the number to decrease. If governments (and I say governments because Canada sweeps disabled people and their concerns under the rug as well) aren't aware of the implications of not planning for the needs of disabled citizens and of not acknowledging them as a group, (if nothing else because disabled people and the people involved with them are a good chunk of votes), then it seems to me that a couple of things could be happening:

  • They're misinformed about disability issues.

  • Disability issues aren't hitting the radar.

  • Disability issues are hitting the radar, and they just aren't important enough to the politicians that that they'll get the facts, or make them part of the platform if they do have them.

I'm not sure what's happening with Obama, given what he said in this State of the Union address. But I'm not even American, and I'm kind of tired of waiting to hear how his America includes disabled people.

How about you?

Before I go...thank you to the group of kick-ass disability advocates who put up with the the crazy Canadian crashing their #SOTU4PWD (State of the Union for People with Disabilities) live-tweet party. I only wish I'd gotten there right at the beginning of the event, because I *loved* the insights, and it was great to see at least some of the State of the Union address with such an amazing group of people.


  1. You are spot on, Sarah. Obama was our great hope when elected but our government is a tied to money, power and domination...not people. In the US a great divide exists and the gap is increasing not only in the disability world. Monumental gaps exists between the rich and the poor (dwindling middle class), between the able and disable, between religious fanatics and the general populace, between the conservatives and liberals, between Republicans and Democrats, between environmentalists and "frackers" and I could go on and on. We have lost a singular common core value...a government of the people, for the people and by the people...all the people.

  2. Notes from a 15 year precinct worker -

    1 - Wait times vary. The staff can't require a change in line order, nor should we. I have EDS and RA. I'm 33. I look healthy. I can't stand for extended time some days. But no stranger sees that. As the precinct inspector, I will not make that call because I don't know the person.

    2 - More depressingly common is a low turn out with no long waits. Federal general elections are a bit busier, presidential general are a zoo. However, if someone has any visible need to get through line quicker, many times the fellow voters will have them move forward.

    3 - Lack of turn out slows everyone down. Low voting, larger precincts with more residents are acceptable, as is lower staffing. If you dislike your 90 minutes wait during your once every four year turn out - get voting and get your neighbors voting.

    4 - My state has had mail in ballots since I was tiny. Very easy to get and return.

    5 - If one needs assistance, there's an automatic system that we test hourly for accuracy, you may bring a friend, or two workers (each from different parties) will assist you at the booth or your vehicle.

    6 - Yes, there are workers who shouldn't be there. Yes, the FEC and state need to do more. But the outstanding majority serve proudly in support of a free and fair election. Nothing would make me happier than a 100% turn out. I will be ripping my hair out and bawling from the insanity. It would be so much better than the usual ripping hair out in boredom and bawling over the pathetic 13% turn out.

    Also, I don't know a precinct worker in my county who wants anything to do with voter identification. We are busy enough in the after 3 pm - my precinct frequently goes from 2% turn out at 3 to 6% at 5 & that 13% at close - we do not want yet one more mess to slow it down.

    Yes, I am 33. Turned on the day the FDA made the JRC ruling. Yes, this is year 15 for me.

  3. Thanks for your comment! It's great to hear from someone on elections staff side of this...I worked at the polls in a provincial election here in Canada at one point, but our systems are a little different, as I'm sure you know.

    Making the voting process more accessible more accessible is not just on the precinct workers. It starts much earlier, and it's not just about physical accessibility - it involves making sure that everyone who is eligible to vote is given the opportunity to truly understand the issues to whatever extent they can, addressing transportation issues to actually get people to polls (yes, mail-in ballots are an alternative...not everyone reads well enough to understand them, and are they available in all states? I don't know)...and you shouldn't be required to make any calls on who is and isn't disabled, as a precinct worker, this sort of thing should be sorted out before people get there, You have enough to do. it's on a whole bunch of gov't agencies to help with this process, and it's in their best interest, as it's ultimately going to increase voter turn-out. We both agree that this is a good thing!

    I admire the major commitment that you've shown to the elections process, and heartily thank you for it.

  4. Getting potential voters to understand and actually cast the ballot is a universal failure. No honest clue on how to fix that.

    I believe that part of HAVA - Help America Vote Act - all states have mail in ballots. How well that actually works, I don't know. My county does it as well as possible, but I'm biased. We haven't needed a FEC review of us, so we aren't awful.

    Other than the lines and lack of universal information - as a person with some disabilities that are physical only, I think it's as fair as possible. We have in place the ability to get assistance of a voter's choice. I can't do anything more without making an unfair election by voting for them.

  5. All these things are very good to know. We have mail-in ballots here - like you, I'm not sure how well it actually works. Our county was toying with online voting for municipal elections (blessedly, very briefly - I don't think that they had a clue of what that that sort of thing would involve!)

    I acknowledge that, given the size of the US, it really is very impressive that elections run as smoothly as they do. You are obviously very committed to the process and to ensuring it's as fair for everyone as possible...if everyone took that responsibility as seriously as you do, then perhaps the concerns that people have raised about accessibility (I'm not the only one that's talked about them, but I'm sure you know that) wouldn't make people so anxious.

    Thank you again for the service that you've done as a precinct worker. It's a very important job.

  6. The accessibility issue is a confusing one to me. I do think via ADA and HAVA, if people want to vote, they have the resources in place. But, the ability to actually understand the ballot is not easy. Heck, I read some proposals and think what am I voting for? But, how does society fix the issue that Joe has an LD and needs someone to read him the ballot without it turning into Jane who can understand the ballot but just votes like her family always does without looking at any issues. If another person helps Joe with his ballot, does Joe have protection that he was told the issue fairly and his ballot is filled out to his wishes.

    And I admit, that's my personal issue. I can fill out my own ballot to my wishes, I can have a private ballot. That's a big deal to me, the private and fair elections are the foundation of the US. How do we keep them fair in everyone has what they need to be successful which hopefully increases turnout, but how do we keep ballots private,and if we can't be private, how do we keep the assistance non partisan.

    How well any election works is on the election commission for that area. I'm admittedly spoiled and have a decent commission. I've seen the bad ones. But, I still think it's fun. Even if it's a very, very long day. I've only seen 90+ minute waits once, 2008 general. I'd love them always, even if that was a pathetic 35% turnout.

  7. Those accessibility concerns are absolutely valid, and ones that I considered when I wondered how to address upcoming elections with people I supported when I was working in the developmental disabilities sector. I never worked in a place where there was a protocol for any in-depth civic education around election time for the people supported, and I always thought that was unfair. Is it difficult to do, particularly since the politics change each election (and since, in Canada, we can do an entire federal election, campaign and all, in less than two months and have recently had them called unexpectedly)? Certainly. But these are Canadian adults with as much right to vote as I have.

    I would like to think that agency workers could assist people in this demographic (or people with low literacy or problems understanding the issues/and or ballots for other reasons) with the required non-partison attitude. In Canada, at least...they're required to be "neutral" about other things in the name of supporting people, and if they can't manage that, then they're in the wrong line of work, as far as I'm concerned, because this isn't about them! But everyone does have biases...and it's difficult to put some of these issues in the plain language that's required...and even if agency workers were 100% non-biased, not everyone has access to them, and may be relying on more biased individuals for help.

    Thorny issues, certainly, and no easy solutions,..

    It'd be interesting to hear the averages on wait times across the country over the years. I forget sometimes that the media tends to report only the most negative statistics...which are good to know, but, of course, not necessarily representative of the average experience.