Sarah Palin: Disability Advocate or Rhetorical Cloud?

I decided to launch the promised (or threatened depending on your perspective) political discussion of our 2008 presidential tickets with the infamous addition of Sarah Palin to the McCain campaign. It would seem more logical to begin with an exploration of both party platforms, but as it is her nomination for Vice President that has incited repeated and painful, as one Lovely and Amazing commenter has deemed "interwebbian fistfights" (and yes, while I desperately want to avert us from that fate, welcome to my new catch phrase) across the T21 corner of cyberspace,  it only seems appropriate to begin with her. 

Last night's CNN news segment did not show a bounce in the polls following Palin's nomination, but admittedly they were tabulated before Palin's much celebrated RNC acceptance speech. Methinks, at least within the T21 community, there has been a bounce following the speech, though it might not have followed to the larger disability community. Our T21 community is just but a microcosm of the larger disability community, but wowza, are we loud.  The echo of those voices rings both with admiration and criticism of Governor Palin. Palin and the crowd pleasing speech she deftly delivered, certainly seems to be the topic of conversation 'round these parts.

And thus I am logically disavowing the logical platform approach and embarking on analyzing Palin's promise to the disability community.

There is no doubt in my mind that Palin delivered an excellent speech with the poise and confidence of a true politician. It was energizing, inspiring, and invigorating. She was well spoken and knew exactly how to address her constituents while still appealing to the ever courted Independent, Libertarian, and Undecided voter demographics. She had me on the edge of my seat, and much like many other Americans, hanging on to her every word.

And, among many other things, this is what she said.

We were so blessed in April. Todd and I welcomed our littlest one into the world. A perfectly beautiful baby boy named Trig.

You know, from the inside, no family ever seems typical, and that’s how it is with us. Our family has the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys. Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge. And children with special needs inspire a very, very special love.

To the families of special needs – (crowd rises to its feet applauding) –- to the families of special needs children all across this country, I have a message for you.

For years you’ve sought to make a America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. And I pledge to you that if we’re elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House. (cheers)

But what did we hear?

What did you hear?

I also heard this:

Government is too big ... he (Obama) wants to grow it...What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger...

I fail to understand how a candidate who disavows Big Government will be able to advocate successfully for the disability community; a community that has historically lobbied for more government, not less.  The disability community has spent decades trying to pass more legislation protecting the rights of those with disabilities; to create more publicly funded programs to provide support of and access to those rights; and to increase budgets allocated to to self sufficiency programs. Disability history is ripe not with government handouts, but with the end goal of creating more tax payers and more active participants in society. These programs in of themselves have created and will create an entire industry which has the ability to bring further economic growth to all Americans.  This is an investment that should Big Government place in the disability community, will return a profit.  That profit is dependent on the full force of the investment, and if we allow the current trickle of funds to continue - a trickle down theory that doesn't support the very legislation it is bound to - there won't be anything to reap.

Is that fiscal responsibility?

The disability community today is faced with many critical issues which may not reveal themselves fully to those of us who do not have children transitioning to adulthood. We are all probably aware that IDEA has never been fully funded at the federally mandated percentage of 40%, today sitting at a meager 17%, and that Special Education and Early Intervention programs across the country have seen their budgets repeatedly cut as a result of this. It is a definite plus that under Sarah Palin's administration Alaska has seen an increase in Special Education funding, but is is also valid to point out that Alaska has overflowing coffers today as a result of oil revenues, which brings me to a few other points:

1) It has been questioned whether the Alaskan special education budget has done enough, quick enough and I simply don't know the answer to that. I know that increased funding is usually good, but I don't know whether or not there has been an relational increase in students receiving special education services either.

and 2) Would Palin continue to make the same budgeting decisions regarding education when confronted with an astronomical deficit instead of the surplus her state has been lucky enough to have? 

I do know that the ticket Palin is running on has not addressed IDEA funding at all. Barack Obama, however, has promised to fully fund IDEA (the Individuals With Disabilities Act), a revolutionary commitment in its own right.

Other pivotal issues facing the disability community are job training and accommodations, employment opportunities, transition programs, independent and group housing programs, access to therapies and medical care through medicaid, and Social Security. Or rather shall I say the cycle of poverty system commonly referred to as Social Security; one which allows for a maximum monthly benefit of $637.00 providing an applicant isn't receiving more than $940.00 in other funds nor has more than $2000.00 of assets to their name. The $637 figure is based on no other income sources, and the more that an applicant receives in other monies will directly reduce the amount received through Supplemental Social Security. That monetary amount may also, at the state's discretion, be further reduced for programs and housing received.

I fail to see how, considering the deficiencies that people with disabilities are faced with today, anyone promising disability advocacy in the climate of now, could ever disavow Big Government. Really - why in the world would anybody from the disability community want to reduce the relatively small investment our government is making in the disability community.

So, that leads me to question what exactly Sarah Palin, as a self proclaimed advocate for "special needs families" defines as Big Government. It is also important to note that while Governor Palin is against Big Government, she is Pro-Life even in the extreme cases of rape and incest. The only exemption Governor Palin supports to her Pro-Life stance is a doctor's determination that a pregnancy would end (mind you not harm) the life of the mother. She also is also against gay marriage. The abortion and lifestyle debates aside, I would suggest that criminalizing reproduction freedom and excluding an entire demographic of citizens from the legal rights of marriage is, by definition, Big Government. I fail to understand how government can get any bigger once it has legislated what can and cannot occur inside the bodies of half of its' population. A population which includes the disability community, some of whom may face unique medical challenges (though not necessarily life threatening) in the event of pregnancy. And before I go any father, please let me be very careful with my words. The point I am trying to make (albeit likely poorly) is not about the right to life, the right to abortion, or the right to marry, but instead the result of federal regulation of personal decisions, some of which have long been considered outside the realm of governmental control. The result namely being what I would define as Big Government.

I assume we can infer what Governor Palin doesn't define as Big Government by virtue of her aforementioned values and subsequent rally against Big Government. But what exactly does it mean to her? 

Furthermore, what does advocacy represent to and for Governor Palin?

Sarah Palin is running on John McCain's ticket, a ticket that to date has made few promises to the disability community. We know that McCain will not support the Community Choice Act, which would not create a new entitlement program, but would rather allow for more flexibility in determining the housing and care resources afforded by Medicaid. Obama, conversely, does support the Community Choice Act. We know that both McCain and Obama support the ADA Restoration Act, which personally I am thrilled about. However Obama does seem to be the candidate whom is actively courting the disability community. Just a visit to both candidates websites and a look at their declared issues will confirm that.

I also find myself questioning the wisdom of Palin's pointed jabs at Obama's experience by means of belittling community organization within her RNC speech.

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

Of course it is more than relevant for her to question Obama's qualifications as he applies for the most powerful position in the United States; for one of the most important positions in all of the world. However to question the validity of community organizing during a convention night dedicated to "Service" seems less than appropriate. Interestingly, she continued to declare: 

But we are expected to govern with integrity, good will, clear convictions, and ... a servant's heart.

This was said above a sea of Service signs waiving high and proud amongst the crowd.

So am I to conclude that service is good...unless you are Barack Obama? Is it that community organizing somehow doesn't qualify as American service? Or should I deduce that community service simply isn't preformed by those possessing a servant's heart or integrity?

How is community organizing not what a disability advocate does? Is that not service? Is that not the work of one with a servant's heart? 

But lets not get too caught up in the details...or should we? Is this not the time to get caught up in details?

There is no doubt that Sarah Palin has increased the visibility of the disability community, and personally I have been incredibly excited and oh so gratified to see the Governor embrace her son with that same lil bit o' extra that my daughter has. It was been wonderful to watch her showcase him in her full mommy pride to the world. I have loved seeing Trig up on the dais of American politics, without shame or excuses, but with the full force of love and support behind him. How great is it to see the face of Down syndrome embedded in American politics?

However it is, as many in the blogosphere are doing, a valid question to ask whether the way baby Trig is being politicized in the media is actually beneficial for the disability community. I invite you to read this piece and decide for yourselves if the image of Sarah Palin as a champion of pro-life values will have a positive or a negative effect on the disability community. It certainly asks an interesting question, especially in light of the Palin campaign's insistence on personal privacy while continuing to place Palin's personal choices and family in the spotlight. And, might I add that while today her supporters have decried the media's invasion into her personal life for its questions regarding her ability to balance her family and her campaign, it was she herself who showed no sympathy for Hilary Clinton during the primary. In fact, I believe she actually used the term "whining".

But I digress (will wonders never cease).

Is exposure really the same as advocacy?

Of course I realize that Palin is a brand spanking new candidate; one who has yet to provide the disability community with the details of her proposed advocacy. While it would have been reassuring to hear some of them in her invigorating speech, I don't judge her for their absence. Rome certainly wasn't built in a day either.  However, I  now challenge her to earn my vote; to make me believe in the promise she made to those of with "special needs children".

I want to believe.

I want to believe that somebody will advocate for my children and for myself. I want to believe that a politician, with the full benefit of a research and speech writing team will at least discover People First Language when courting my vote. I want to believe that all of us with children with special needs do have the same goal - to make this world a better place for our sons and daughters; to provide them with every resource possible to thrive, live up to their full potential, and become as self sufficient as possible. I want to believe that Sarah Palin holds the same definition of advocacy as I do, and that she would utilize the full force of her power to break through the cement celling that has held people with disabilities for so long.

I need her to show me that, in light of her infamous "What Does the VP Do" soundbite, she would have the power to promote the change we need. Cheney redefined the scope of the power afforded the VP office; I need Palin to convince me that not only could she continue that newly minted tradition, but that she would use her power for the good of all.

These are the comments and questions that the National Down Syndrome Congress is making and recommends asking this election season. This is what I need to hear Sarah Palin address in the next sixty in order for me to take her promise seriously.

Major issues for persons with disabilities include getting a quality education, access to community-based quality residential living services (including housing and transportation) and getting a meaningful job which offers some economic self-sufficiency.

As you decide who will get your vote in November, learn where candidates stand on these important issues by asking questions. Start by asking candidates if they have a written position statement on disability policies. (If they don’t have one, ask why and offer to share your expertise as a parent or family member of a person with Down syndrome on critical issues that your family faces.)...

Education and Employment

Prior to 1971, public schools had no obligation to educate children with disabilities and many did not. The Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees all children the right to a free and appropriate public education in the school they would otherwise attend if they did not have disabilities. The goal of education for all individuals is to prepare them for a meaningful career, economic self-sufficiency and a meaningful life in the community. Despite the fact that this law was passed over 30 years ago, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities remains at about 90 percent.

Question for Candidates

• What do you think should be done to improve the quality of educational services to students with disabilities?
• What would you do to improve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities?

Community Living Services for Adults with Disabilities

The federal/state Medicaid program funds most adult services such as housing, transportation and support staff who provide assistance to individuals with disabilities with the activities of daily living. It also provides services to some children with disabilities. It is a funding stream that is biased towards costlier institutional care and under siege at the federal and state levels.

If you want those safety-net services to be in place when your child grows up — or to remain in place if your family member with Down syndrome now uses them — then you need to know where candidates stand on funding adult services.

Question for Candidates

• What would you do to bring the Medicaid program in line with the goal of full community participation for individuals with disabilities?
• What would you do to ensure that federal and state budget shortfalls do not harm programs for individuals with disabilities?
• What do you see as the role of the federal government in disability policy?
• What do you think of the trend to limit the role of the federal government in disability policy?

Key points…

• Most Medicaid dollars go to support long-term care for the elderly, not services to individuals with disabilities.
• From 2002-2004, per person Medicaid spending rose 6.7%, almost half the rate of the private market (12.5%) despite serving a sicker and needier population. Medicaid covers people with the greatest needs and its funding is essential to the nation’s public health infrastructure.

You can view what the National Down Syndrome Society defines as National Legislative and Policy Priorities here.

So Sarah, if you are the bulldog in lipstick you have said you are, put the lipservice away and bring it on.

Because we need more than a friend. 

We need an advocate.

But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed ... when the roar of the crowd fades away ... when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot - what exactly is our opponent's plan

So Sarah, what exactly is your plan? What languishes behind your own cloud?

My eyes are open and my ears are listening. I am waiting for you.

Until then my lipstick is blue.

And, in all fairness, those Styrofoam Greek Columns were likely borrowed from the GOP, apparently a fan of Hollywood too. You know what they say about them there stones and those fragile little glass houses...

Blogland, let the games begin.

16 ChatterBoxes:

datri said...

Thank you for the intelligent and well thought out commentary. Geez, I don't have time to think (or write!) so deeply on the issue, LOL. A lot of things to consider over the next two month since the initial "wow, she has a child with Down syndrome just like us!" honeymoon has ended.

Kim said...

Well written! Like you, I wait to see Palin's true colors. Thus far, to be frank, I have only been offended by her outright disgust over community service, her simply party-line platform and the multitude of lies and omissions that are now surfacing. And I was actually a bit offended by her use of her child to bring up the issue of disabilities. If she'd worked it into the speech as being a hot topic, fine. If she explained the life-long implications of having a child with a disability (or lifelong illness), great. But simply bringing it up because she was introducing her family, and, well, one happens to be disabled? I felt it was a bit of a slap in the face - like it would never have been thought of if her child wasn't there to remind her of it.

I'm anxious for the GOP to let the media at her (not her family, but her). If she's ready to run for VP, then she's ready to face the media head on, as her opposition has had to do. No more, "wait until she's ready" stuff. If she's ready to run as a candidate, she has to put on her pants and be ready to play with the big boys.

starrlife said...

Phew- I'm with datri- you said so much that has crossed my mind but I've not been able to articulate so clearly.Thanks.

Angie-Nuvision said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post! I am certainly going to pass this along to others.
Thank you so much for analyzing these issues so carefully and intelligently.
And thank you for being an advocate.

JRS said...

Whoa! I'm tired after reading this post but thank you so much for writing it. I was thinking the exact same thing about SP's famous quote to be friend and advocate to families of children with special needs and then following it up with slamming Obama about big gov't. Sumptin don't jive there. Rock on sister! I'm pumping my fist with ya.
Where do I get the blue lipstick?

Anonymous said...

I don't have a lot to add to all your information, my talented Darling, but one thing that you touched on that I think should be constantly remembered as we hear what is aired through US media is the way that this particular Republican convention, in a world where words have never meant what we think they do and the "best" words mean something different to everyone, black truly and finally has become white and day truly has become night in every Orwellian sense. It is not enough to hear what they say, we must learn what they want their words to mean (and to whom). War is peace, you know. . .

Pinko Grammy

jonashpdx said...

Time for me to stop blogging myself and just start linking my paltry selection of readers (see "family members") to your site from now on.

For someone initially loathe to write about the political aspects of this election and how it relates to our T21 community, you're doing a heck of a job.

And you got me out of my "too much thinking about politics" funk this morning, so thanks for that.

Anonymous said...

This might be of interest, found while trying to track down the famous (maybe infamous) newly-separated and grants-only budgeted Alaska Challenge Yourth Program; is it the military program or is it not? An hour of looking has gotten me only to the general note that the Alaska DEED Finance Subcommittee was hearing all about it in February. This note also said that Governor Palin put forth $200 per student as the increase to the general budget, which committee members seemed to like and I have seen reported all over blogland. Apparently, however, students had previously been so underfunded that the courts may have been pushing her and the legislature owing to a recent lawsuit by parents and student advocates. I didn't find a ruling for this yet - anybody else?

Pinko Grammy

For immediate release: For additional information contact:
June 21, 2007 Bill Bjork, President
Virginia McKinney, Communications Director
274-0536 (work); 263-8529 (direct);
229-1803 (cell, occasionally on)

Media Advisory

Who: Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason

What: Rules education system violates Constitutional due process rights of
some students; upholds constitutionality of school funding; stays
decision for a year

When: Today

Where: Superior Court for the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District at

Background: On August 9, 2004, a coalition of parents, educators, and school
districts challenged the constitutionality of Alaska’s funding for
kindergarten through high school (K-12) schools. Moore vs. State
of Alaska centers on adequacy-- because the state does not invest
enough money in its schools to provide an adequate education for
all students. A month-long trial ended in early November 2006.

What's next: We will read and study the 196-page opinion then review our options.

Statement by Bill Bjork:

“This is a mixed ruling. We’re pleased that the judge recognized that many of Alaska’s children are not receiving an adequate education.

“But as far as the funding piece is concerned, this appears to be a disappointing setback. Frankly, we’re puzzled.

“Two decades of flat funding have cut the buying power of our schools almost in half. Despite the best efforts of teachers and other educators, our schools are failing too many of Alaska’s children. School districts simply do not have the resources they need to offer every child the opportunity to meet standards—to leave no child behind.

“To say that money doesn’t matter simply defies logic.”

Chrystal said...

I am impressed with your thoroughness.

I learned something from the article you linked to about martyrdom and the comments that followed, so thank you for that.

Power to the people!

Chris said...

Thank you for this post. I'm right there with you. I've written about it, but not nearly as eloquently as you have. Thank you for providing such rich detail.

The community organizer jab really bothered me as well; just didn't have the energy to fight about it.

Let's see if she can give us a reason to believe.

Let's see if McCain can give us a reason to believe.

Mark said...

This is a great post. I linked to it from

Nicole said...

Awesome piece Emily. If you don't mind I'm going to link to it as well. Much love, Nicole

Hector and Jennifer Varanini Sanchez said...

We are one of the ones who are definately considering McCain/Palin this November but we are waiting for a more definitive answer. How can we get them to address this as soon as possible? Is there a way to get our questions answered?
Please see our posts about this at
Thank you Emily for starting this very important dialogue.

Always Home and Uncool said...

Advocate, my eye. She's used her Down Syndrome child as an on-stage prop: to cover her pregnant daughter's bump before the beans got spilled, as a Cindy McCain fabric softener, and as photo-op tool. I just don't buy it. Though, I wouldn't mind doing a few round of tequila shooters with her.

jennfiergg said...

Excellent points, all.

And what frustrates me? I WANT to like Palin. I want to support her. But if you go to the McCain-Palin Website, there isn't ONE mention of disabilities. Not one, even if you use the search function on the site.

But on the Obama site? There is it's own category, right out front, included with all the other issues. And he's stated his positions, in plain black and white.

These are things to be considered...


Anonymous said...

McCain voted AGAINST funding Individuals with Disability Education Act in 2005 & 2000.

** FUNDING for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:
Senator McCain voted NO
Bill Number: HR 3010
Issue: Education
Date: 10/26/2005

** FUNDING for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:
McCain voted: NO
Official Title of Legislation:
Bill Number: HR 4577
Issue: Education
Date: 06/28/2000

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