Obama and Disability Policy: More Action Needed on Core Issues
In the 2007 Presidential election, disabilities in general and autism in particular were specifically mentioned Obama in his plan to “build a world free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination“:
- to provide Americans with disabilities with the educational opportunities that they need to succeed;
- to end discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity for persons with disabilities;
- to increase the employment rate of works with disabilities;
- to support independent, community-based living for persons with disabilities.
Much was promised. While some initial measures have been taken—in February of 2009, Kareem Dale was appointed as the first Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy and in December of 2009, Obama nominated eight individuals including self-advocate Ari Ne’eman, President of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network to the National Council on Disability—-much remains to be done regarding individuals with disabilities and their needs: Whether the proverbial glass is full or empty remains to be seen.
When the site Whitehouse.gov was launched on January 21, 2009, autism was listed as a specific agenda item in the Disabilities section and was said to “top” the President’s “medical to-do list. During his presidential campaign, Obama’s plan on “supporting Americans with autism spectrum disorders” had promised to:
- appoint a federal ASD Coordinator to oversee all federal ASD efforts;
- fully fund the Combating Autism Act and Federal Autism Research Initiatives;
- support Special Needs Education for Children with ASD;
- support universal screening.
An “autism czar” has yet to be named to coordinate federal efforts concerning ASD. While Obama’s plan to “”build a world free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination” had mentioned fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there has not been much discussion about this in the past year. Legislation under the name the Autism Treatment Acceleration Act (S. 819, H.R. 2413) was introduced in the Senate in April of 2009 and in the House in 2009, respectively. These bills call for insurance companies to provide coverage for diagnosis and for treatment and especially in the form of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy; assistive communication devices are also mentioned.
That is, these bills focus more specifically on insurance for children, for fairly specified types of treatment. Legislation providing insurance coverage for certain types of treatment for children has indeed been passed in a number of states. But this legislation is just a start. Autism is a lifelong disability. While individuals vary greatly in their needs, some—my son included—will need support and services to work and live throughout their lives.
Legislation and programs that can make it possible for individuals to work and live in their communities—rather than in nursing homes or other institutional settings—are vital and, in these areas, Obama’s administration needs to take a much, much more active stance. Assessing his remarks on the American with Disabilities Act in July of 2009, self-advocate Dora Raymaker refers to New Mobility’s blog on Obama’s ADA “Speech Bombs” which suggest that his administration still has some ways to go in creating a world “free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination.” Another key piece of disability legislation, the Olmstead decision, calls for “persons with mental disabilities” to be placed “in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate.” The President’s press release on the anniversary of Olmstead referred to 2009 as “The Year of Community Living” and announced “several new initiatives including details about increased numbers of Section 8 (housing) vouchers and enhanced interagency coordination to address this critical civil rights issue.” While these are, as Raymaker writes, a “move in the right direction,” much more aggressive action is need to truly realize Olmstead; Obama’s press release failed to make “any mention of the core issue of institutional bias in the health care system and the need for significant health care reform.”
More aggressive action that recognizes the “core issue[s]” facing individuals with disabilities of all ages and those are support them: This is what we need to see from the President in 2010. “Creating a world “free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination” is a beautiful ideal that we’d all like to see come to pass but it won’t—it can’t—unless we roll up our sleeves and start making real changes now.
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Photo by Kristina Chew.
Kristina Chew, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Classics at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. Since 2005, she has been blogging about autism, disabilities, and education, previously at Autism Vox and now at We Go With Him, a daily journal about life with her 12 1/2 year old son Charlie.