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John McCain on Disability: You Cost Too Much

Posted Nov 10 2008 5:54pm
The panelists at the National Forum on Disability Issues had a discussion about how to improve disability services when there are so many competing budget priorities. (A video of the event can be found here.) Enabling people with disabilities to work and contribute to society should be regarded as a long-term investment that would reduce public costs and increase tax revenues over the years, they said. Another point raised during this discussion was that the cost of services would not be used as an argument for excluding other groups of people from full participation in their communities.

Later in the program, Senator John McCain took the opposite view when answering a question from moderator Judy Woodruff about the Community Choice Act, which would provide supports and services to allow Medicaid recipients with disabilities to live and work in their communities. Senator McCain said that he does not support the Community Choice Act because he thinks it would cost too much.

In my view, it's totally illogical to argue that keeping people in nursing homes and institutions for a lifetime is somehow cheaper than it would be to provide the services needed to turn them into productive taxpayers, earning wages and contributing to the economy. But, at the same time, I have to disagree with the claim put forth during the panel discussion that similar arguments would not be made to exclude other minority groups.

We don't have to go back very far in history to see that those in positions of power and privilege have repeatedly complained about the cost of extending equal rights to other groups. Opponents of school desegregation claimed that it was too expensive to build new integrated schools to replace the run-down, rat-infested structures where black students previously had been sent. Employers objected to the cost of keeping jobs open for women on maternity leave. When women first entered universities and workplaces that had been exclusively male, there were some men who complained about the cost of building women's lavatories. Those who didn't want to see a menorah next to a crèche in municipal holiday displays said that it was an unnecessary expense. And if we go back a bit farther, a common argument made in favor of slavery was that it would be prohibitively expensive to free the slaves and pay wages to them. In short, the argument that we can't afford to integrate various groups into full community participation has been made throughout American history by scoundrels and bigots.

Now, I don't mean to imply that Senator McCain is prejudiced against people with disabilities. His grasp of economic issues is poor, as he has himself admitted, and it's possible that he may genuinely believe that it is cheaper to keep people in institutions than to enable them to live in the community and earn wages. However, it is an unfortunate fact that Senator McCain is not in good historical company in making that argument.
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