Sunday, September 07, 2008

Governor Palin As A Special Needs Advocate?

Most Canadians follow American presidential politics with as much, if not more, interest than our own federal elections. Proximity to such a large, powerful, (and generally friendly), neighbor and the reach of American media make it fairly easy. Right or wrong it also seems that American politicians will go much further than Canadian politicians in stretching the truth and attacking opponents. While we may profess to disdain such behavior it is fascinating and we do watch. This year with the emergence of the charismatic Barack Obama I believe there has been even more interest here in Canada.

Now the emergence of Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican VP nominee also draws interest particularly for parents of children with disabilities. Governor Palin chose to have her youngest child knowing he would have Down Syndrome. As the father of a severely autistic 12 year old boy I can not imagine life without him. He has brought incredible joy. Under no circumstance would I have not wanted him to come into this world. But that is easy to say now. Governor Palin made her decision without yet knowing her child. Her decision to do so commands respect.

Governor Palin's decision to keep a Down Syndrome child gives her instant credibility on special needs matters. But at the same time as the father of an autistic boy I know that my wife and I have both had to devote vastly more time to his care and well being than we do for his older brother who was able to speak, converse, read and understand life at very early stages. I am not attacking Governor Palin but I find it difficult to understand her decision to take on the VP nominee challenge when her Down Syndrome child is only 4 or5 months old. And yes I would say the same thing if she were a man.

I have made career choices based on what is best for my children, and particularly for my autistic child who has special needs. I recognize that Governor Palin might have lots of family support to help during these challenging VP times but missing so much time with Mom could be tough for a special needs child during such a critical period of development.

What seems most puzzling about the idea of Governor Palin as a special needs advocate as she claims she will be are the policies she has practiced and will practice as part of a Republican administration. Jennifer Steinhauer and Amy Harmon have a balanced review of Governor Palin's history on disability issues in the New York Times. Alaska lacks many basic services for children with special needs although geography and remoteness are major contributors to that reality. Governor Palin did sign into law legislation that would increase funding for special needs although she had no role in its development, she simply signed it. She did actually cut spending for Special Olympics in half.

What really makes me wonder about Governor Palin's new mantle as a special needs advocate is the following excerpt from the NYT article describing past actions of the "Top of the Ticket" Senator John McCain:

The law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975 with bipartisan support, called for the federal government to pick up 40 percent of the state cost of teaching children with special needs. The federal government pays less than half that, though more under the Bush administration than under President Clinton.

Mr. McCain voted to reauthorize the law, but voted against a measure, with nearly every other member of his party, to increase financing through a reduction in tax cuts for the wealthy. Mr. McCain has been a proponent of school vouchers, denounced by many advocates for children with special needs as draining public money away from special education programs; Ms. Palin is a school-choice advocate, her spokeswoman said.

Mr. McCain also opposes proposed federal legislation that would help pay for states to move people with special needs from state institutions into other living arrangements, but he has said he supports updating the Americans with Disabilities Act to offer more protections.

As I understand American politics it is the President, not the Vice-President, whose policies and priorities prevail in the White House. It is difficult to see how Governor Palin, whose own record on special needs children is mixed, will be able to forcefully advance their cause, particularly if to do so, would require reduction of tax breaks for the wealthy.

And like I said earlier, I have a difficult time seeing how a parent, male or female, could take on such a time consuming, all absorbing, challenge as running for Vice President of the United States of America while putting first the interests of a very young child with special needs. If Governor Palin would put that challenge ahead of dedication to her own young child I am very doubtful she would actually put the interests of special needs children high on her list of priorities.

Still, I don't get a vote and my opinion, as a Canadian, doesn't count for much. But I will watch with fascination as the process continues toward November.

Even as a Canadian whose opinion does not matter I should still disclose my bias : I believe that Senator Barack Obama represents the change we need in the United States ... and in Canada.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Harold.

Anonymous said...

It's Down Syndrome, not Down's Syndrome.

Ari Ne'eman said...

Finally, something we agree on, Harold.

Unknown said...

To anonymous 2:21 pm

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I agree Harold. She is taking on to much in this stage of her life. Something will have to give.
Good post


teh4 said...

This is one of the best posts I've seen about this issue. Would you mind linking to it on

Anonymous said...

I am disappointed with this article. Sometimes it takes someone to actually become a special needs parent and walk in those shoes to really understand the complexity and importance of the issue. I am a special needs parent and I am excited to see her become the first woman VP as well as someone who also has a special needs child.
As to her becoming VP and not spending enough time with her son. That is a bunch of hogwash. I am a single parent and have support for my son so I can work. He gets so much love between all of us. It takes a village to raise any child. Her son will have as much love as he needs.

She'saPistol said...

Love, yes. But there is so much hands on with a special needs child in many ways it's like one child with the work of triplets that never get beyond the toddler stage. Who's going to do that? Dad?