Reflections on the National Forum on Disability Issues

October 2, 2012 by JoLynne Lyon

Gordon watches the forum

The National Forum on Disability Issues did not succeed in attracting the two presidential candidates. That said, it was a heckuva lot more interesting than we expected.

Disability is a relevant national issue. A recent, weighted survey found that 51 percent of respondents either had a disability, or had a family member or close friend with one. The forum itself was sponsored by 50 different organizations and viewed in numerous locations, including ours. It was billed as the only campaign event with a unique, disability-specific view.

It was a step forward for a group that, as Ted Kennedy Jr. put it, talks a lot but doesn’t get out and vote.

Both candidates appointed representatives to speak for them and field questions.

Ted Kennedy Jr. was President Obama’s representative. He spoke passionately for people with disabilities, as a proud member of the disability community. (He lost a leg in his fight with bone cancer as a child.)

“We know that people with disability don’t want a handout, they want a job,” he said. “We’re the only group out there that want to pay more taxes… But we don’t want to trigger the loss of health care benefits.”

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) represented Governor Romney. She is the mother of a child with disabilities. While stressing that it’s important to maintain protections for people with disabilities, she said it would be great if government programs could be more efficient.

Both representatives said attitudes toward people with disabilities need to change. They both said employment for people with disabilities is important.

They disagreed on plenty of points, though. Here’s a sampling of their views:

Ted Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy said Governor Mitt Romney would slash the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  by 20 percent. He pointed out that the Republican Party Platform asks its members to vote against the UN’s Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. And he argued against the Republican idea of block grants for Medicaid, which amount to a cap.

The most important question he would pose the candidates was this: How they would expand jobs and independent living for people with disabilities? The answer would be telling, he said–it would show whether the candidate’s attitude was based on fear or pity or respect for civil rights.

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers

States and private companies have found innovative solutions that the Federal Government could learn from. Rodgers pointed to Walgreen’s stores, which are now being built using universal design, and a Wal-Mart experiment that put “must-have” items in an easy-t0-reach spot at the front of the store.

Budget realities mean that policymakers have to make some hard decisions, she said, but the government–and the provisions of the Affordable Care Act–are not being honest about the true cost of delivering services. She argued that more should be done to address the actual cost of health care.

Her question to the candidates: How would they open the door of opportunity for people with disabilities to have jobs? Would they think beyond those typically open to people with disabilities?

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