JENNIFER STEINHAUER and AMY HARMON The Gadsden Times Published: Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 6:01 a.m. Last Modified: Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 3:16 a.m.
Amid the barbs and hockey banter Wednesday night, Gov. Sarah Palin directed an emotional appeal to the hearts of millions of parents with children who have special needs, promising they would “have a friend and advocate in the White House” in a McCain-Palin administration. As she spoke, the camera panned to her baby, Trig, who has Down syndrome.
Ms. Palin’s offer of friendship sparked hope in many parents, advocates and lawyers as the often-marginalized subject of disabilities rights took center stage. “We need one, that’s for sure,” wrote one blogger, Rhymerchick, a Phoenix mother with an autistic child, adding, “I am tempted to vote for them just because of that promise.”
In animated debates in blogs, chat rooms and classrooms across America, others wondered what such advocacy would entail. But the governor offered no details, and Maria Comella, her spokeswoman, would not elaborate on what Ms. Palin would seek to accomplish for disabled children as vice president. “She is going to be an advocate in the White House on multiple levels,” Ms. Comella said in an e-mail message Friday, “because she understands the issue, what’s needed and what works.”
To those in Alaska who work with children with special needs, Ms. Palin’s pronouncement was surprising; the disabled have not been a centerpiece of Ms. Palin’s 20-months in office or any of her campaigns for office.
She signed legislation that would increase financing for children in Alaska with special needs — though she was not involved in its development — yet that state is the subject of two lawsuits that allege inadequate services and financing for those children, particularly those with autism. “I never heard Governor Palin say as governor, ‘You have an advocate in Juneau,’ ” said Sonja Kerr, a lawyer specializing in disability law in Anchorage.
What lawyers, advocates and parents are seeking now, Ms. Kerr said, is to learn. “What is behind the announcement?” she said. “An advocate is someone who pleads another’s cause, so what is her plea going to be? To get rid of Medicaid wait lists so we can get kids services? To quickly pass the American with Disabilities restoration act? That is what I haven’t heard.” Alaska, both by dint of its sparse population and lack of resources, has often struggled to provide care and educational services for its roughly 18,000 children with physical and emotional disabilities.
For years the state shipped thousands of children out of state for mental health services, a problem so acute that Ms. Palin’s predecessor created a program intended solely to get enough services in the state to bring the children back; from 2004 to 2007 the number of children sent out of state fell to 300 from about 600.
While the state made a decision to close down mental health institutions in the 1990s, it has been unable to provide alternative services for children with mental health issues. The rural makeup of the state outside Anchorage (where half the population resides) makes services all the more difficult.
“The reason they have so many problems is lack of resources,” said Gary Mayerson, a lawyer who represents children with autism in 30 states. “We once went to Kodiak Island, where there are probably more bears than people, to see a kid with autism who needed a behavioral consultant. They literally have to fly these people in on float planes. So I can’t exactly fault a school system for not having a speech therapist, but I do fault the district for not bringing them in or sending children out of the district for those resources.”
Ms. Palin recently signed legislation that rewrote the state’s school financing formulas, in the process dramatically increasing the budget for school districts that serve children with extreme special needs. “She had no role whatsoever” in the development of the legislation, said its author, Representative Mike Hawker, a Republican. “Her role was signing. She recognized the importance of what we did and endorsed it.”
Democrats have pointed, sometimes correctly, sometimes erroneously, to items in the state budget for the disabled that Ms. Palin cut. According to state documents, she cut the state’s Special Olympics budget in half.
The central concern of many parents with children who have special needs is the financing to fulfill the decades-old federal mandate requiring public schools to offer educational services to their children — or pay for them in nonpublic school settings.
The law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975 with bipartisan support, called for the federal government to pick up 40 percent of the state cost of teaching children with special needs. The federal government pays less than half that, though more under the Bush administration than under President Clinton.
Mr. McCain voted to reauthorize the law, but voted against a measure, with nearly every other member of his party, to increase financing through a reduction in tax cuts for the wealthy. Mr. McCain has been a proponent of school vouchers, denounced by many advocates for children with special needs as draining public money away from special education programs; Ms. Palin is a school-choice advocate, her spokeswoman said.
Mr. McCain also opposes proposed federal legislation that would help pay for states to move people with special needs from state institutions into other living arrangements, but he has said he supports updating the Americans with Disabilities Act to offer more protections.
Ms. Comella, Ms. Palin’s spokeswoman, would not elaborate on Ms. Palin’s decision to make special needs children a centerpiece of her acceptance speech. But Ms. Palin’s personal appeal held enormous emotional pull for parents who rarely see a public official who can personally identify with the same parental challenges as they do.
Ms. Palin’s effort to rally parents of children with disabilities has also prompted reaction among those who fear that her idea of advocacy might really mean preventing abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome, rather than lobbying for the early medical and developmental assistance that is so crucial to their children’s well-being.
New technology is enabling more women to learn in earlier stages of pregnancy whether their fetus is affected by Down syndrome. About 90 percent choose to terminate pregnancies. Parents of children with disabilities have sought to educate prospective parents on the emotional rewards of having children like their own. But many say they know better than anyone else how crucial it is that they be given a choice.
“Surely she understands that it can be dark and difficult sometimes,” Sarahlynn Lester, whose daughter has Down syndrome, wrote on her blog this week about Ms. Palin. “Having been in the same position, I simply do not understand the desire to legislate (rather than educate) women into making better choices.”
Nancy Iannone, a Democrat and mother of Gabrielle, 3, who has Down syndrome, said that she was so thrilled to see Trig on stage that she had to remind herself: “I am a liberal. I am a liberal. I am a liberal.” Ms. Palin, she said, “has a child with a disability, but that doesn’t mean her party is disability friendly.”
The last time a candidate explicitly appealed to families of the disabled at a national convention, advocates said, was 20 years ago, when the presidential nominee, George H. W. Bush, endorsed the Americans with Disabilities Act — and got a 10 percentage point bump among voters who identified themselves as having disabilities, according to Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, a lobbying group.
On Thursday, Mr. Imparato said he and other advocates received an e-mail message from Senator Barack Obama’s campaign outlining the disabilities issues that the Democrats had addressed at their convention.
“They certainly must be aware of the effect Palin is having on this community,” Mr. Imparato said.