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.
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