America is dedicated to the principles of human liberty, grounded in the truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights. As Abraham Lincoln once said, these permanent truths are “applicable to all men and all times.”
Our founding fathers were steeped in the Judeo-Christian traditions. One of those is the belief that Moses, who had a significant speech impediment, led the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom. The Bible says that when Moses hesitated before God, saying that he thought his disability disqualified him for leadership, God indicated that Moses must serve. Such was our first lesson that people with disabilities who can work and lead should do so. Indeed, faith says that all humankind was created in God’s image. That is the basis of our equal rights. Aaron, Moses’ brother, helped him communicate. With teamwork, they led the Hebrews to freedom and the Promised Land of Israel.
President Ronald Reagan worked to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. Under his administration, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was founded. President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. This act enabled millions of Americans with disabilities to have a hand up, not a hand out, as they were able to go into schools, civic institutions, and the workforce to create a better future for themselves and their families.
Yet despite these proud traditions, CPAC speakers this past week and the RNC chair spent an extraordinary amount of time discussing reaching out to Hispanics and African Americans, yet did not say anything substantive about a larger group of voters — Americans with disabilities. According to the U.S. Census, 1/5th of Americans have a disability.
According to a poll of 1000 likely voters conducted by my firm, Laszlo Strategies, fully 51 percent report having a family member or close friend with a disability. Fifty-two percent of Democrats report that they or a loved one have a disability, and for Republicans a smaller number of 44 percent report they have a disability. Surprisingly, independents have the largest number of voters who say they have a disability, with 58 percent saying yes. This shows that swing voters with disabilities and their families are up for grabs.
Many Republicans can speak with legitimacy to Americans with disabilities. Sen. Mark Kirk, Sen. John McCain, and former Senator Bob Dole have disabilities. Rep. Pete Sessions, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Rep. Gregg Harper, former Governor Sarah Palin, and former Sen. Rick Santorum have children with disabilities.
There are a huge number of issues that impact people with disabilities which resonate with Republican primary voters but aren’t even on their radar screens. For example, approximately 90% of American women who find out they are carrying a child with Down syndrome choose to abort. People with disabilities can fall victim to others (including family members and supposed “care takers”) who push them into “assisted suicide”/euthanasia. At times, people with disabilities are denied access to needed organ transplants because their lives are judged less worthy than those of people without disabilities. These “pro-life” issues matter to conservative activists and many disability activists alike.
People with disabilities are more likely to be victims of crime. Thus, many voters with disabilities share a “tough on crime” perspective. Yet, because it was reported that the shooter in Newtown had Asperger’s, many voters with disabilities and their families are concerned about being profiled in such a way that their gun rights can be denied. They risk being judged as a discriminated class, not as individuals.
Educational rights and opportunities are critical to people with disabilities. Many parents of children with disabilities, who often face large medical and other costs, want vouchers so that they can afford for their children to attend private schools with additional support for children with disabilities.
As for all Americans, the number one issue in the disability community is jobs. During President Obama’s first term in office, unemployment for Americans with disabilities skyrocketed. The number of people collecting federal disability insurance has increased by 1,385,418 to a record 8,827,795, meaning a larger strain on the federal coffers and more people with disabilities living in poverty.
In short, people with disabilities are looking for new answers and policies.
The finger-pointing that the Obama administration is doing regarding the Ryan budget does nothing to answer the recent report by the Government Accountability Office that the federal government has literally dozens of programs to help people with disabilities get jobs that don’t measure their outcomes or performance metrics, and do not coordinate, collaborate, or use proven practices. We need government that works better and costs less.
The majority of working-age voters with disabilities want to work and be independent. Thankfully, a talented bipartisan group of elected officials is now really focusing on these issues. In the House of Representatives, two talented Republicans, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Gregg Harper, both of whom have children with disabilities, are considering solutions through the prism of fiscal conservatism. They have introduced the Transitioning Toward Excellence in Achievement and Mobility (TEAM) Act of 2013 (H.R. 509, 510 and 511), which promotes the advancement of Americans with significant disabilities transitioning from youth to adulthood.
Each of the three bills, the TEAM-Employment Act, TEAM-Education Act, and TEAM-Empowerment Act, would strengthen accountability, clarify expectations, expand flexibility, and align systems to ensure that publicly funded assistance is effectively utilized to support one uniform goal: ensuring that every youth with a significant disability has the opportunity, encouragement, and support to become gainfully employed in an integrated setting, pursue a post-secondary education, and engage in meaningful ways in typical community settings once they leave high school.
At the state level, Gov. Jack Markell, chair of the National Governors Association, has made solving these challenges into his chair’s initiative. He is being joined by Republican governors such as Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, whose parents were deaf. Their exciting work, “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities,” focuses on the employment challenges that affect individuals with intellectual and other significant disabilities. They are starting to bring together public-sector, private-sector, and non-profit leaders to come up with creative and bipartisan solutions that can enable people with disabilities to go from being dependent to independent.
Today millions of Americans with disabilities who are educated, capable, and willing to work are relegated to a life of miserable payments from the federal treasuries, whose coffers are already bare. Instead, they really need transitional support and an employer willing to see their abilities, and not just their disabilities. As has been shown by Walgreens, Specialisterne, and other companies that have hired people with disabilities, these employees can be exceptionally reliable, talented, and profitable workers.
Faith-based solutions are also critical, as religious congregations can help facilitate opportunities for high school students with disabilities to get unpaid internships. These opportunities can give them life skills that can help enable them to get paying jobs later. Individuals who are willing to volunteer can also be “job coaches” and big brothers/sisters to Americans with disabilities who want to work.
America can’t afford financially or morally to pay people to stay home when support to accommodate their special needs can enable them to work and be independent. There is a long way to go to solve these challenges, and it cannot be done by the government alone. But enabling Americans — including those with disabilities — to achieve the American dream is a goal worth fighting for.