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NEWS 2/24/04: Rochester disability activists grouse that presidential hopeful John Edwards had no sign language interpreters at his speech -- and he patted the heads of people in wheelchairs. Read Rochester Democrat-Chronicle story.

Read Candidates' positions on disability issues



Candidates respond to ADAPT on community-based services

Candidates' positions on Medicare

John Kerry receives endorsements from
Bob Williams and Fred Fay (read endorsement)
Disability scholar Paul Longmore (read endorsement)

The Democratic Campaign and Disability Rights

by Mary Johnson

"The disability vote is one that politicians ignore at their peril,"writes N.O.D.'s Brewster Thackeray. Read article.

Feb. 17, 2004 -- With an impressive number of victories in state primaries, Sen. John Kerry seems likely to secure the Democratic nomination for president. But funny things have happened before, and a lot can change before Democrats decide on their candidate to unseat George W. Bush in November.

Whoever emerges as the front-runner, this much is already clear: Democratic candidates are paying more attention to disability issues than ever before.

That says less about the candidates, however, than about the state of the "organized disabled." Well before the 2004 election season began, disability rights groups and politically savvy activists began working to get disability issues onto candidates' radar screens.

The American Association of People with Disabilities asked the 9 Democratic hopefuls four questions back in the fall. Six candidates answered rather promptly; another two answered late (only Al Sharpton appears to have made no response). The National Organization on Disability as well offers links to the candidates and their positions.

The American Association of People with Disabilities asked the candidates their views on

  • Having disabled people involved in their campaign and administration
  • Appointing judges who will support disability rights and supporting an ADA "Restoration Act"
  • Medicaid and the Medicaid Community Attendant Services and Supports Act (MiCASSA)
  • Funding IDEA and improving graduation rates of students with disabilities

Their responses are online at the AAPD website

At the other end of the disability activism spectrum, the cure interests have also sought candidates' views -- the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, of which the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation is a partner, asked candidates' views on stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning -- and published the responses on their website (Reeve is vice chairman of the N.O.D. Board of Directors). Longtime disability rights operatives have made themselves available to various campaigns, including former VT Gov. Howard Dean's and Kerry's, resulting in remarkably detailed and on-target disability rights platforms.

How much any of this will make any real difference as voters head to the polls next November is less clear. So far, candidates' responses are predictable and soothing. Only when controversy arises will it be clear whether the candidates will put their money is where their mouths are (or their disability outreach staff's mouths, more accurately).

And whether there will be any controversy will depend how much candidates think "disability rights issues" will resonate with the larger public. Will a candidate ever bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act's weakening -- or any component of their disability rights platforms -- in stump speeches anywhere other than to gatherings of crips?

On Jan., 16, Gen. Wesley Clark gave a rousing speech to disability activists at the Disability Policy Town Hall Meeting in Bedford, NH (Read speech.). It all sounded great. But don't hold your breath waiting to hear Clark commenting that "unnecessary institutionalization is discrimination" on CNN anytime soon.

Disability rights is a long way from being a hot-button issue in the 2004 campaign. Until it is, it will be hard to truly gauge what any politician feels about any given disability issue. Even then, one would have to sift the rhetoric -- but at least there'd be some rhetoric to sift.

Mass media continue to look at candidates' views on abortion, the death penalty, the economy and taxes, education, the environment, health care and the war in Iraq. With the exception perhaps of the generic "healthcare reform" (which is way too broad to mean anything to anyone), there isn't a single disability rights issue among them.

Each of the disability platforms posted by the candidates looks good. (Follow links at NOD to the platforms.) There's no controversy -- and not much difference -- in any of them. What are the candidates' views on enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act? Why, all the Democratic candidates are for strong enforcement. What are the candidates' views on supporting home-and community based services? Strong support, naturally. They all want to see the Medicaid Community Services and Supports Act passed -- those who have congressional records all tell us they have been strong supporters of the bill in Congress, notwithstanding the fact that the bill has been in Congress for 13 years with no sign yet of passage.

They all denounce the current President for appointing to the federal bench of the likes of Jeffrey Sutton, who took anti-ADA cases before the Supreme Court and who has now been named to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. All, if given the Oval Office, would appoint judges supportive of disability rights.

All would work to see Congress fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Those who have been in Congress tell us they have been for full IDEA funding all along. All of them tell the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research that they support stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.

No surprises anywhere. The only differences that show up are in the quality of the information they're getting from whichever disability consultants they're listening to. Sll the material is good; but some is more detailed than others. John Kerry to date has the most thoroughly thought-out disability positions.

In October, former Rep. Tony Coelho gave a speech at New York Law School in which he challenged the candidates to

  • appoint federal judges who will respect the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • everse the damage to the ADA by recent Supreme Court caselaw; boost employment for people with disabilities through changes in federal contracting and small business policies;
  • increase federal employment of people with disabilities by 100,000 as required under the Executive Order promulgated by President Clinton; and,
  • change federal policies to remove work disincentives.

Dean responds

Edwards responds

Gephardt responds

Groups have not yet started to endorse candidates yet, though. Longtime disability Washington insiders Bob Williams and Fred Fay are the first we know to have issued a formal endorsement of a candidate. They have endorsed Kerry. They were also instrumental in developing his disability platform.

To Howard Dean goes the prize for always stepping up to the plate at the appropriate time. Dean released his platform on the July 26 anniversary of the ADA. He issued a statement Oct. 1 to coincide with the start of the traditional "hire the handicapped" month (now called National Disability Awareness Month). He issued a statement on Dec. 3, the International Day of Disabled Persons. On Jan. 13, he issued a statement about the TN v. Lane ADA case which was in oral arguments before the Supreme Court that day. This likely signals less about Dean than about those who are advising him. But still it's not bad to have a candidate who does speak out at the appropriate times, even if we know he would not necessarily have had a clue to do so had he not been prompted. That's what staffs are for, after all.

Dean's record on disability issues is more problematic, however, simply because, of all the candidates, he is the only one who actually has an administrative record. Kerry, NC Sen. John Edwards; MO Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, OH Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and CT. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman can all say (and do say, whenever they're asked) that they supported the ADA. Some add that they would support restoring it to the law it was before the Supreme Court hacked away at it; that they fought against confirming the anti-ADA judges Bush nominated. They all support MiCASSA. They support full IDEA funding. (Read candidates' positions on issues from AAPD).

We can look at Howard Dean's record on carrying out disability policy as Governor of Vermont. One activist argues that when it comes to "mental health," the record is less than stellar.

Saying that "the public mental health system in many states is in shambles and the federal government does too little to help," Dean in mid-September proposed a platform that included "access to health insurance, parity for insurance coverage of mental health care, integrating mental health care with other social support systems, improving access to community care to prevent people with mental illness from being imprisoned and abandoned, ending rules that discourage work. for 'people with serious mental illness,' school-based screening and treatment for children. recovery programs for people with mental illness and public education to decrease stigmas and raise awareness."

Psychiatric rights activist Laura Ziegler, though, says Dean is "no ally" of people with psychiatric disabilities based on his record as Governor of Vermont, noting that he "heavily promoted" a state bill requiring "forced psychiatric drugging" and adding that "discrimination against Vermonters with mental disabilities was an integral part of Governor Dean's mental health policy." More.

Other activists are troubled by a remark Dean made at the height of the Terri Schiavo feeding-tube-withdrawal battle. In early November, Dean said he was "appalled" by FL Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature intervening in the case, ordering the re-insertion of her feeding tube. "What business is it of the government to interfere with a private family matter with a right-to-die case?" the Associated Press reported Dean as saying. To many disability activists who were arguing for Schiavo to remain alive, Dean's remarks signaled that he did not understand or care about disability rights opposition to the "right-to-die" cause.

Read Laura Ziegler's criticism of Howard Dean's mental health platform

Readresponse supporting Dean's Disability Rights/Mental Health Platform

Read further criticism

Concerns about any Democratic candidate's positions, on whatever issue, though, are at best premature. It will come down to "who can beat Bush?" Right now there isn't a whole lot of difference between them when it comes to what they say about disability rights.

As the campaign season heats up, it will be interesting to see to what extent any of the candidates incorporates disability rights issues into his mainstream politicking -- and if he does, which disability issues he (and his campaign staff) will see as important enough to speak to "the American people" about.

The front-runner in this category -- indeed, the only runner in this category -- is Gephardt, who drew the attention of reporters at the Des Moines Register and the L.A. Times for speaking out about disability rights in late December. Times political reporter Nick Anderson wrote in an article headlined "Gephardt Proposes More for Disabled" in the Dec. 30 Los Angeles Times.that it was a move to win Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's endorsement -- Harkin was the chief sponsor of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. It's the first time in this primary season (and we hope it's not the last) that we've seen a candidate using disability rights as an issue in a speech that was reported by a major news outlet. Although the speech was given at the Iowa School for the Deaf, Anderson reported it as being politically significant. That's progress, of a sort.

Despite the auspicious platforms, it's too early to tell if disability is viewed by the candidates as anything more than a small special interest. But the extent to which a candidate's campaign moves beyond this thinking and is able to address issues such as home-based services as issues of importance to the general electorate will, it seems, signal the extent to which the candidate takes the issue seriously.

Campaign Desk, a new blog from the Columbia Journalism Review, asks for your views on campaign coverage -- or lack of coverage. Tell them when you DON'T hear about disability rights in the campaign.

In the end it will come down to something beyond either candidate: it will come down to whether we think a Democrat or the present Republican administration can better serve the cause of disability rights. If we think the Democrats are better, we will vote for whichever candidate becomes the nominee.

Between now and then, however, we can urge the candidates to speak publicly on the courts' rollback of disability rights protections, on the need for in-home services, the need to switch our nation's long-term services system from its institutional bias, the need to fund the IDEA.

And we can watch and listen to see if they do.

Posted Jan. 19, 2004

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge.

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