From crusading against Rahm Emanuel's use of the term "retarded" to criticizing the Fox cartoon Family Guy for depicting a character with Down syndrome whose mother is "governor of Alaska," Sarah Palin has positioned herself in recent weeks as a national spokesperson on disability issues. Yet leading disability-rights organizations in Alaska, Washington, D.C., and across the country tell The Daily Beast they view Palin's increasing outspokenness on the issue with skepticism, noting that on most of their policy priorities—from health-care reform to increased federal funding for community services—Palin is either out of step with many national disability-advocacy groups or has yet to articulate a clear position.
“I think having a celebrity as an advocate is a very good idea,” says Bruce Fletcher. “But I don’t think she’s the right person to do that given that there’s a cloud over her in terms of her credibility.”
During her vice-presidential nomination speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008, Palin—whose 22-month-old son, Trig, has Down syndrome—vowed that "special-needs" families would "have a friend and advocate in the White House" if John McCain were elected. In May 2009, the Long Island-based Independent Group Home Living Association, which works with developmentally disabled individuals in New York state, named Palin its "Honoree of the Year." During a trip to New York, Palin spoke at a benefit dinner for the group, and later attended an Autism Speaks fundraising walk in Westchester County. But on the policy level, Palin has a mixed and murky record on disability organizations' priorities.
"Since the end of the presidential election, we haven't heard Sarah Palin articulate any specific policy proposals [on disability]," said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, a Beltway lobbying group representing people with intellectual disabilities. Like nine other national disability-rights leaders The Daily Beast spoke to, Berns pointed to Palin's excusing of Rush Limbaugh's use of the word "retarded"—even as she hammered Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff, for the same sin—as evidence of her lack of seriousness. "It has unfortunately politicized the issue in ways that are not productive, and it has converted what really are bipartisan issues into partisan ones," Berns said.
Indeed, though the Democratic Party has historically been more enthusiastic about funding health-care and education programs that serve disabled people, the key pieces of legislation addressing disability rights, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, passed with bipartisan support. Bob Dole, Orin Hatch, Sam Brownback, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers are among the Republican politicians who have prioritized disability policy issues.
So far, Palin has not demonstrated the same depth of interest. Adam Pockriss, a spokesperson for Autism Speaks, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast that since the 2009 Westchester fundraising walk, " Sarah Palin hasn’t had any further involvement with Autism Speaks; nor has she taken a position on any autism-related policy items, to our knowledge."
Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said, "We'd like to see her go back to some of the policy issues, like Medicaid costs at the state level and how that will affect children and adults with disabilities. There are a lot of issues out there that we haven't seen her weigh in on. So the jury's still out on how strong of a disability advocate she wants to be."
Palin has repeatedly said she opposes health-care reform, in part because of her beliefs about disability rights. On her Facebook page last August, she wrote, "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."
In the past, such as during the Terri Schiavo controversy, disability-rights activists have allied themselves with the religious right, which embraced Palin's "death panel" rhetoric to fight health-care reform. Yet today most mainstream disability-rights groups are strong supporters of President Obama's proposed health-care overhaul. Though many of the disability community's priorities were excluded from the process—leading to some grousing among advocates about Democrats—the various proposals would prevent insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing medical conditions, a common problem for people with disabilities. The Senate version of the reform plan also contains a provision that would provide states with extra Medicaid funding if they agree to give disabled patients the option of being cared for at home, instead of in institutional settings such as nursing homes and mental-health facilities. Called the Community Choice Option, it is a top priority for disability activists. In 2008, the McCain-Palin campaign opposed a similar piece of legislation, the Community Choice Act, prompting activists from the group ADAPT to storm John McCain's Senate office, where they were arrested.
After she was nominated to the Republican ticket, Palin gave one disability-focused speech in October 2008, in which she promised that a McCain administration would fully fund IDEA, using money raised by abolishing congressional earmarks. Returning from the campaign trail, though, she disappointed some Alaska disability advocates when she flirted with rejecting federal stimulus funds, which included money directed toward disabled students. "That caused us some concern," said Dave Fleurant, executive director of the Anchorage-based Disability Law Center of Alaska. (Eventually, ceding to pressure from the state legislature, Palin did accept most of the funds.)
While running for governor in 2006, Palin attended a community meeting at which local officials discussed a five-year support plan for the developmentally disabled. Once in office, she signed a bill that increased special-education funding. Overall, though, Palin's governorship "didn't do anything harmful for the disability community, but there was no clear direction, either," according to Doug Toelle, development director for Access Alaska.
Last week, Palin's spokesperson, Meghan Stapleton, agreed to respond to The Daily Beast's detailed questions about Palin's current positions on national disability policy issues. But Stapleton then emailed only links to news articles written about Palin and disability. Palin's current positions on the Community Choice Act and another disability rights legislative priority, the CLASS Act (Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act), remain unknown.
Referencing Palin's Feb. 6 appearance at the National Tea Party convention in Nashville—where tax-cutting was akin to religion—Alaska legal advocate Fleurant asked, "Are the rights of the disabled in sync with the Tea Party movement? What's their position on full funding or placing people with disabilities in the community? If they're aligned, more power to them, but I haven't seen that."
Bruce Fletcher, founder and CEO of the New York-based National Association for the Developmentally Disabled, was harsher, saying, "I think having a celebrity as an advocate is a very good idea. But I don't think she's the right person to do that given that there's a cloud over her in terms of her credibility."
But perhaps in an acknowledgment of Palin's presidential aspirations—and continued popularity among the Republican grassroots—some disability-rights leaders say they hold out hope that she will become more serious and detailed in her advocacy for their issues.
"I don't think you can have a child with a significant disability and run away from these issues. Your interest only deepens over time," said Imparato of the American Association of People with Disabilities. "It's the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Let's take a hard look: Where are we? Why are so many people with disabilities living in poverty? Why are the employment numbers not going up? Why do we have this use of seclusion and restraints in classrooms?
"My hope is that Sarah Palin will take this opportunity to really look at and speak about these issues."
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.