Saturday, December 26, 2009

Disability Policy in 2009: The Year in Review

Like every other year, 2009 had its ups and downs in terms of disability rights and policy. The Obama administration made some important steps in some areas, while much remains to be done on several important agenda items. Not surprisingly, the actions of the Obama administration play a prominent role in this list of 2009's top news items for disability issues.

UN Convention -- At the direction of President Obama, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to to United Nations, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While largely symbolic, this was an important international gesture to express the nation's commitment to advancing the rights of people with disabilities.

A High-Level Advocate in White House -- President Obama wasted no time demonstrating his support for people with disabilities when he named Kareem Dale the first White House special assistant for disability policy. By all accounts, Dale has done an admirable job keeping disability issues front and center for the administration. Read an interview with Dale.

Olympics, Paralympics, Special Olympics -- The president suffered a major setback when his strong support failed to help Chicago win the bid for the 2012 Olympics. Surprisingly, Rio was selected over Chicago. Chicago had a very strong proposal for the Paralympics, and hopefully the spotlight of the Olympics will help protect and advance opportunities for people with disabilities internationally. In other Olympic news, the president got in trouble for making a "joke" about the Special Olympics -- which, looking back, probably heightened his sensitivity and helped elevate disabilities as a priority for his administration.

Are Students with Disabilities Being Left Behind? -- The appointment of Arne Duncan as secretary of education hardly caused protests by disability advocates, but few applauded the news. Recognizing that Duncan was not known for his support for special ed in Chicago, most people reserved judgment, not knowing where special ed would fit in with his federal priorities. And in many ways, we're still waiting. Duncan has not said much on the topic, but he gets points for appointing Alexa Posny as assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services. If he consults with her on major issues affecting students with disabilities, it's possible we'll see evidence that he cares about more than test scores and graduation rates. Lawyer and blogger Jennifer Laviano called Duncan's performance the lowlight of the year for special education.

Supreme Courts Backs Reimbursement for Private Special Ed -- In June, the Supreme Court said federal law authorizes reimbursement for tuition to private schools even if a child has never received special ed services in a public school. The decision in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. said that under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, if a school district fails to identify a child with a disability, the district is still financially responsible for ensuring that the student receives appropriate services.

Disability.gov -- The Obama administration has made tremendous progress in leveraging technology to improve communication and transparency throughout the government. The use of blogs, Flickr, Twitter, video, and lots of interactivity on the White House website has raised the standard for all future administrations. One of the best things the government has done is launch disability.gov, which consolidates resources from 22 federal agencies in a user-friendly format. example , Read my Q&A with Kevin Connors, who helped build the site.

Autism -- The CDC released data showing that autism affects one in 110 people and one in 70 boys, and national and state officials took steps to address the needs of affected families. This year 17 states introduced legislation to require insurance companies to cover autism diagnosis and treatment. According to Autism Votes, 15 states have passed autism insurance laws, six are considering bills, and another seven (and DC) have pending bills. The administration released the first-ever strategic plan for government-funded autism research and added $1 billion to its budget for autism over the next eight years. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services has called autism "an urgent public health challenge" and compared it to the challenge of polio in the 1950s and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

What other highlights and lowlights would you include? How would you rate the administration in these areas after a year?
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