Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Voting Up Among People With Disabilities

Disability Scoop's Michelle Diament, who you can always count on for the most important news about disabilities, reports that "People With Disabilities Voting In Record Numbers." According to a new study, more people with disabilities voted in the 2008 presidential election than ever before. The 14.7 million voters in 2008 represent a 34 percent increase over 2000.

In 2008, 64 percent of people without disabilities voted, just a bit above the 57 percent of people with disabilities. When you look at people with disabilities as a minority group, the 14.7 million voters compares favorably with African Americans (15.9 million voters) and Hispanics (9.7 million voters.)

If you have any doubt that people with disabilities are a political power, consider this: In an election that gave us our first African American president, almost as many people with disabilities voted as African Americans.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson: Lessons for Disability Advocates, but Which Lessons?

I typically don't comment on pop culture on this blog -- I'll never compete with Perez Hilton, TMZ.com, or People magazine, and I don't want to. But the day after Michael Jackson's death, I came across an article on Twitter with an intriguing title: "What Can We as Advocates of those with Disabilities Learn from the Story of Michael Jackson?" The article was from PediaStaff, a company that recruits and places pediatric therapists, so I was interested in their perspective.

The article, by marketing VP Heidi Kay, suggests that what we can learn from Michael Jackson is that we should have treated him better while he was with us. That instead of criticizing him as a "social misfit," we should have tried to understand him better -- just as we should try to understand and accept children with physical, neurological, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Heidi goes so far as to say, "The story lines of the lives of Michael Jackson, Susan Boyle, and others might have played out differently if the collective 'we' had shown more compassion for them in their hour of need."

That's where I disagree. Yes, some people mocked Michael Jackson for his eccentricities, but the main criticism was reserved for his interactions with children, which were some combination of 1) unusual (no doubt), 2) inappropriate (little doubt), or 3) illegal (not proven). In his own words, from an extensive interview aired as "Living with Michael Jackson":

Martin Bashir: "But is it really appropriate for a 44-year-old man to share a bedroom with a child that is not related to him at all?"

Michael Jackson: "That's a beautiful thing."

Bashir: "Did you ever sleep in the bed with them?"

Jackson: "I have slept in a bed with many children. I slept in a bed with all of them when Macauley Culkin was little: Kieran Culkin would sleep on this side, Macauley Culkin was on this side, his sisters in there...we all would just jam in the bed, you know....Because what's wrong with sharing a love? You don't sleep with your kids? Or some other kid who needs love who didn't have a good childhood?...Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to do, is to share your bed with someone."

Like many other people, Heidi defends Jackson by saying he was robbed of his own childhood and that he was cleared of all charges. To some extent, I agree. By many accounts, Michael Jackson was like a child psychologically up until his death at age 50. And apparently he had a special ability to connect with children because he never let go of his childhood. That's not a bad thing. But when you're 30, 40 years old, you're an adult, and sleeping in bed with other people's children is wrong.

And that's the real lesson for advocates of children with disabilities -- because those children are up to 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers. So I will respectfully mourn Michael Jackson's death, feel sympathy for his family and friends, and honor his musical legacy -- but I will not endorse his troubling behavior with children just because he has died. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Are Disability Priorities Taking a Backseat to the Arts?

If you read this blog for updates on disability issues, you may not care about this article about the Foundation for Arts and in Embassies, from Foreign Policy Journal. So why am I even mentioning it? Because I found it through my Google Alert for "Kareem Dale," Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy. But most of the time, my Google results relate to Dale's other role -- that of Special Assistant to the President for the Arts and Culture.

In February, I celebrated Dale's appointment as the highest ranking disability adviser in White House history. In March, I linked to this interview with Dale on a range of disability issues.

But also in March, I reported that the president had added a pretty big task to Dale's plate -- overseeing arts and culture. In that post, I wrote, "The question about Dale's most recent role is whether it will distract him from his duties in disability policy or enhance those duties. For example, what is the role of arts and culture for people with disabilities? What effect can art and music therapy play in education for people with special needs?...Is the White House asking Dale to take on too much, or will the two roles complement each other?"

In response to those questions, reader William Pearce commented: "Dale cannot do both jobs well. This is typical for administrations that do not care about disability issues. I see this dual job role all the time in academics and disability issues are never a priority. This is a bitter disappointment."

I'm not saying Dale is not doing a good job as an advocate for people with disabilities. But his public profile -- shaped by his appearances, interviews, and media coverage -- is dominated by the arts, not disability policy. So much so that an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Johanna Mattern Allen misinterpreted his second appointment as replacing his first. Recommending that the president appoint a cabinet-level position on disability, Allen wrote, "There currently isn't even a policy adviser for disability since Kareem Dale moved to an arts leadership position."

The arts are important to our culture and values, and having a special assistant in that area makes sense. But especially with health reform high on the administration's agenda, it's a slight to the 50 million Americans with disabilities to make their top government advocate split his time with another issue.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Are Chicago Public Schools "Systematically" Denying Special Ed?

Kudos to Christina Samuels over at Education Week's special education blog for picking up on this story from Chicago. Christina and I have been examining Education Secretary Arne Duncan's past experience with special education -- to see what the future might hold -- and a recent article in the Chi-Town Daily News reports that some students with disabilities are being denied access to specialized help, and others are being barred from evaluations for special ed because it's too expensive to educate them. According to the Chi-Town article:

"Mary Ann Pollett, principal of Moses Montefiore Special Elementary School, testified before the City Council's Committee on Education and Child Development that officials have discouraged teachers at her school from reporting students' disabilities because it is too expensive to deal with them.

" 'They deny that that goes on, but it does,' Pollett said, with her superiors only a few yards away. 'Montefiore is only the tip of the iceberg. This goes deep into a systemic issue that needs to be addressed within the Chicago Public Schools.' "

Also at the meeting, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union released a survey showing that more than 70 percent of teachers and case managers believed students in their schools with emotional or behavioral problems were not receiving special education.

Is this Arne Duncan's special-ed legacy as head of Chicago schools? If so, what does that say for today's students across the country who need special services?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day

If you're a father, have a father, or are married to a father, this article by Sharisa Lewis in the Examiner in Dallas is for you: "Dads of Special Needs Kids Deserve Extra Honor, Praise."

I'm not sure I agree with Sharisa's headline. As one of the fathers she's writing about, I think fathers with children with special needs (like all parents) do everything we do because we love our children and want what's best for them.

Sharisa makes a good point about President Obama's recent speech challenging fathers to be more involved with their children. He said, "We need to step out of our own heads and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what's going on in their lives."

But Sharisa accurately points out, "Fathers of kids with special needs have an extra challenge to reconnect each day with that child. Sometimes it comes easily, some days it doesn't seem worth the effort. Applause to all the fathers who keep on loving and building up the child with special needs, even through the disappointing days."

(That's me and my daughter in the photo above. It's a few years old, but I've always liked it.)

Happy Father's Day.

Is Obesity a Disability?

At the annual meeting of the American Medical Association, doctors discussed whether obesity is a disability that should be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They said no.

According to ABC News, the doctors' rationale was that labelling obesity as a disability could restrict communication with their patients. They fear they could be reprimanded if they offended a patient by telling the truth: "You're overweight, you're at risk, and you need to lose weight."

The AMA's resolution states: "We do not want to have this limit the ability to have doctors talk about a very serious condition. If obesity is designated as a disability, physicians could be sued or reprimanded for discrimination under the Americans with Disability Act if a patient takes offense at the physician discussing obesity. Therefore be it resolved that our American Medical Association not support the effort to make obesity a disability."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Making This Blog More Accessible

Today I received a nice note from "Accessibility Evangelist" Darrell Shandrow, who runs the Blind Access journal and podcast. Darrell asked me to consider using comment moderation instead of word verification to prevent spammers from posting inappropriate comments. "Though an audio alternative is provided," he explained, "it is difficult to use and still locks out the deaf-blind."

Because I agree with Darrell that resources like my blog should be fully accessible to all people with disabilities, I have enabled comment moderation. I promise to quickly review all comments, and I will post everything except spam, inappropriate language, and personal attacks.

Thanks for making this blog more accessible, Darrell.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Teacher Whose Class Voted Out Kid with Autism is Reinstated

Here's a story for you.

May 2008: 5-year-old boy with autism has behavior problems. Teacher asks students to vote on whether he should stay -- they vote him out. Teacher is suspended one year without pay, and tenure is revoked.

June 10, 2009: Teacher wins appeal. Will return in November with tensure reinstated.

Here's a TV Report, via Disability Scoop.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Palin Reappears as Special Needs Advocate

After her unsuccessful bid for vice president, I wondered aloud if Gov. Sarah Palin would honor her pledge to be an advocate for people with disabilities. During the campaign, she said if she were elected, people with disabilities would have an advocate in the White House. I pointed out that she didn't have to be vice president to be an advocate.

On Sunday, Gov. Palin participated in a fundraiser in Long Island, N.Y., for Independent Group Home Living, a nonprofit for children and adults with developmental disabilities. She also spoke at a walk for Autism Speaks. With her were her husband, Todd; their 14-year-old daughter Willow; Palin's sister Heather Bruce, and Bruce's 14-year-old son Karcher, who has autism.

I give her credit for publicly showing her support and for taking the time to make public appearances that raised money for two great causes. But as I expressed during the campaign, why did Palin continually say that giving birth to her son Trig (who has Down Syndrome) was the first time she became aware of disabilities? At that point, her own sister had had a son with autism for more than a decade, yet disability advocates in Alaska universally said her policies as governor showed no understanding or special interest in disabilities.

Imagine you're Palin's sister Heather, in a crowd of 1,000 people, and you hear your sister say:
"Having a son being born with Down Syndrome is a whole new chapter of our lives....It's taken a while for us to get to this point where we can say, 'Thank you, God for allowing us to recognize the special needs community.' Without Trig this would be absent from us."

"Absent from us"? Isn't having a nephew with autism reason enough to champion the cause, especially if you're the governor of your state?

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law