My older brother has Down syndrome, which hinders his ability to learn. Despite his disability, he graduated from high school and lived independently with a job for several years until health challenges forced him to enter a small group home.
When President Barack Obama joked to Jay Leno that his inept bowling skills are “like Special Olympics or something,” my first reaction was to feel outraged and betrayed on behalf of my brother. On reflection, however, I agreed entirely with the response offered by Obama spokesman Bill Burton—that Obama made “an offhand remark,” and didn’t mean any harm.
That attitude perfectly sums up public policy towards people with disabilities people with disabilities: benign, thoughtless neglect.
If Obama really wants to apologize to people with disabilities, he shouldn’t stop at a phone call to Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. He should publicly get to work on his bold agenda to deliver the American Dream to the millions of people with disabilities.
My hope for my brother and other people with disabilities ran high when Obama became the first ever president to appoint a Special Assistant to the President on disability policy. This move and his bold campaign pledges on the issue demonstrate the depth of his commitment to people with disabilities.
There is no doubt Obama has the right vision. His campaign outlined detailed proposals to equalize and expand educational opportunities for people disabilities, help them find gainful employment, and facilitate their independence and participation in the wider community, rather than hidden away in institutions.
More importantly, he took the historic step of naming Chicago attorney Kareem Dale as the first Special Assistant to the President on disability policy, a position Vice-President Joe Biden stressed would have “direct access” to the president.
These are great first steps. Yet if he wants to lead our nation beyond thoughtless neglect, Obama should launch a strong public effort to pursue the rest of his campaign agenda. A good start would be to make real efforts to ensure the economic recovery includes people with disabilities by overhauling federal work incentives.
Our current approach to encouraging employment among people with disabilities may be the best example of how our thoughtless attitude towards people with disabilities is inefficient and wasteful. According to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, the real problem is the “all-or-nothing dichotomy of public policy that continues to view disability as the inability to work and that provides needed public assistance only if one remains poor and completely dependent on government help. “
Encouraging dependency of people with disabilities instead of helping them work is costly to everyone. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that of the $120 billion dollars America spends annually on disability services, 80 percent goes to monetary support. While much of this money is well spent on vital services, some is wasted because the federal government fails to provide adequate work incentives and support.
This approach actually costs us twice—first in taxpayer dollars and then again in lost productive labor. Last year, researchers at Cornell University found that working age (21-64) people with disabilities had an employment rate of only 36.9 percent. That’s a gap of 43 percentage points compared to working age people without disabilities. That means that of the over 22 million working age people with disabilities, approximately 14 million are unemployed.
Better work incentives can put a dent in the problem. An analysis of the 2006 General Social Survey, conducted by a team of researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse Universities, found that 80 percent of unemployed, working age people with disabilities “would like a paid job now or in the future.” Given a real opportunity, people with disabilities will work.
Obama should tackle this employment crisis to help move beyond his comments on Leno. He can do this by requiring the federal government to hire more people with disabilities, providing seed grants to states to create innovative career training and entry programs, and offering tax credits to companies that adopt aggressive hiring, training and retention programs for people with disabilities.
These measures would allow other people with disabilities to share in some of the expanded opportunities that have helped my brother. Securing his limited independence and community participation was a labor of love for my family. My mother surrendered a promising legal career just to fight for the full support and opportunities our society provides to people with disabilities. Yet compared with most families who have a child with a disability, we were lucky. Many parents simply do not have the time to overcome resource constraints and bureaucratic barriers to real social inclusion.
The best thing Obama can do, however, is make his efforts public. Until our national attitude towards disability changes, it will be impossible to provide real opportunities for economic success and civic participation. Before his appearance on Leno, the president made all the right moves on disability. Now our nation needs his leadership—in actions and in words.