Friday, December 26, 2008

Special Needs: The Year in Review

2008 was a notable year for disability policy and awareness. Here are the year's top 10 moments -- politics, policy, and culture -- that show us where we’ve been and where we may be going.

1. Gov. Sarah Palin selected as vice presidential nominee
Say what you want about Gov. Palin’s qualifications and whether her nomination hurt or helped Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid, but her presence on the ticket did more to bring special needs issues than anything else that happened this year. This just barely outranked…

2. Barack Obama elected president
In the long run, the election of Barack Obama will mean much more to the disability community than Gov. Palin’s 15 minutes (or three months) of fame. He will come into office with a clear plan for people with disabilities and a team of people with firsthand experience as both parents and professionals, but also huge budget problems and other challenges. His effectiveness will depend largely on …

3. Arne Duncan nominated to be Secretary of Education
Like many others, I have questioned this decision -– not because Duncan is a terrible choice, but because I (and many opinion leaders who I respect) can find no reassurance that Duncan is the best choice in regard to special education. At this point, it’s too early to tell whether Duncan will be remembered as a champion for the rights of students with special needs.

4. Insurance legislation picks up momentum
This year saw many states require insurance companies to cover the costs for autism diagnosis and treatment -- a big issue that will become even more important with the nation’s economic challenges. Legislation was signed in several states -– most recently in Illinois. Read more.

5. President Bush signs ADA amendments
On Sept. 25, President George W. Bush signed landmark civil rights legislation that extended the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He was joined by his father, President George H.W. Bush, who signed the original ADA Act in 1990. Andrew Imparato, the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, called this “the most important piece of disability legislation since the enactment of the ADA in 1990.”

6. Sen. John McCain raises autism during presidential debate
I’m ranking this a little lower, but it put autism front and center in the presidential campaign. As much of an impact as Gov. Palin made at the Republican convention when she vowed to be an advocate for families raising children with special needs, it wasn’t until Sen. McCain referenced autism during the final presidential debate on Oct. 15 that it became a centerpiece of his campaign. It was too little, too late, as McCain’s rhetoric did not match his campaign platform.

7. President Bush signs bill banning genetic discrimination
You might not have heard about this, but on May 21, President Bush signed a law that may save your job one day. Anticipating advances in DNA testing, the legislation is intended to protect people from losing their jobs or health insurance when genetic testing reveals they are susceptible to costly diseases. The law forbids employers or insurance companies from denying employment, promotions, or health coverage to people based on the results of genetic tests.

8. Court says NCLB trumps special education law
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has its good sides and bad sides. In one discouraging development, a federal appeals court in Chicago in February ruled that mandates under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “must give way” to the provisions of NCLB since it is a newer law. Two Illinois school districts and four families had claimed that NCLB’s testing requirements conflicted with the mandate for individualized education programs. The districts has missed targets for progress largely because of poor performance by students with disabilities, which NCLB says has be counted in efforts to hold schools accountable. The National Council on Disability released a report in January 2008 saying NCLB has benefited students with special needs.

9. “Tropic Thunder” unleashes storms of protest
A coalition of disability groups called for a boycott of the movie “Tropic Thunder” because of its use of the word “retard” and its characterization of Ben Stiller’s character Simple Jack. Read Susan Senator’s column about her own reflections and the numerous comments it provoked.

10. Athletes inspire in the “other” Olympics in Beijing
Though they were overshadowed by Michael Phelps and the other Olympians in Beijing, the athletes of the 2008 Paralympics provided plenty of inspiration themselves. Read about 16-year-old swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, who uses a wheelchair on land but became Singapore’s first-ever gold medalist in the Paralympics.

What did I leave out? Feel free to add a comment.
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