Disability Wasn’t Mentioned in the State of the Union. Should We Care?

Disability Wasn’t Mentioned in the State of the Union. Should We Care?

This past Tuesday, President Obama gave his last State of the Union address. As a policy wonk and a card carrying member of the politics fandom, I enjoyed it tremendously. As a disability rights advocate, I was underwhelmed. Except for a heartfelt section calling for more medical research on curing cancer, the President failed to bring up people with disabilities in his remarks. This is not altogether unusual. While President Obama will have many disability rights achievements as part of his legacy when he leaves office next year, he has rarely acknowledged the disability community in his remarks to the nation.

I have complicated feelings about that. After all, it isn’t as if President Obama has not done a tremendous amount for the disability community. The President’s Affordable Care Act is perhaps the single most important piece of disability rights legislation since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) itself, though most people don’t see it as such. And yet, the benefits of the ACA are designed first and foremost for the general public, and it has been sold in those terms. Very few people think of Obamacare as a gift to the disabled. Perhaps that is as it should be. But the minimal attention paid to the disability community in President Obama’s public addresses does leave one with the impression that the White House does not view disabled Americans as a group worth pandering to.

It is not as if Presidents addressing the disability community in their State of the Union remarks has no precedent in modern political history. George H.W. Bush, who championed and signed the ADA, made reference to the legislation in three of his four State of the Union addresses. Bill Clinton used his 1999 State of the Union to propose a modest long-term care tax credit as well as to call upon Congress to pass legislation making it easier for disabled people to remain in the workforce. In his 2000 address, he followed up to commend Congress for passing that bill into law.

George W. Bush focused on a more specific part of the community, but still emphasized disability services in at least three State of the Unions, twice calling on Congress to re-authorize the Ryan White Act supporting individuals with HIV/AIDS, and held a legitimately impressive record regarding improving treatment for HIV/AIDS internationally. An earlier State of the Union referenced his New Freedom Initiative, a Presidential agenda for expanding disability equality (albeit one with rather limited outcomes).

What’s galling is that President Obama has an extraordinarily strong disability rights record, arguably far more so than that of most or all of his predecessors. The Affordable Care Act’s ban on insurers discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions is a potentially game-changing step for disabled Americans. The Obama Administration’s Justice Department has engaged in unprecedented enforcement of the Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C. decision, a 1999 court ruling requiring states to offer community services to seniors and people with disabilities that sat ignored for most of the Bush Administration. And thanks to an executive order signed by the President in 2010, the federal workforce has reached a record high in employing workers with disabilities.

So does it matter that President Obama doesn’t talk about people with disabilities, if his disability policy record is impressive? I think it does. During my time on the National Council on Disability and in my ongoing work with ASAN, I’ve seen the policy process up close and personal. Many of us in the advocacy community are aware of how many of the Administration’s most important disability policy outcomes came from the personal commitment and expertise of senior appointees. As Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Tom Perez made freeing people with disabilities from institutions and nursing homes a personal cause. Similarly, figures like Sharon Lewis, Sam Bagenstos and Patricia Shiu made aggressive enforcement of disability rights law a priority across every area they had responsibility. Much of the disability policy legacy of the Obama Administration can be attributed to the energy and vision they and others like them brought to their roles.

No doubt the President approved of those initiatives, and he deserves credit for appointing people who sincerely care about the community to important positions. Personnel is policy, after all. But not every political appointee comes with a personal connection to the disability community. Most take their cue from the White House as to which constituencies and projects should be prioritized on an agenda that can not possibly encompass every worthy cause. When people with disabilities are mentioned as a priority in a State of the Union, it lights a fire under every government employee. We need that kind of attention and focus.

6 thoughts on “Disability Wasn’t Mentioned in the State of the Union. Should We Care?

  1. We should care that the entire speech was about how great he is and how the world is all sunshine and rose petals when we’ve had american citizens imprisoned in Iran for half his presidency until just today. While Obamacare premiums are through the roof and 33 million Americans still don’t have health insurance. His only real accomplishment is being a great orator and being able to fool a significant portion of the population time and time again.

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  2. I’ve never got over how he voted against measures to stop the born alive abortions of babies with Down syndrome in the Illinois Senate when the inhumane practice was exposed. The practice was eventually banned despite his support for it to continue.

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  3. As the President began his final chapter at the State of the Union this week, it was apparent people with disabilities owe much to the Obama tenure. We have celebrated the passage of the Affordable Care Act, new protections from discrimination based on pre-existing health conditions and a surge in electronic access and technology – plus more. This progress is a testament our community power through advocacy. Now it is time for our community to ensure we are in the first chapter of the next president’s book by organizing for electoral power. This power is measurable and can be used to hold our officials accountable to the ballot box that elected them. On January 20, 2017 will we hear the word “disability” echo the capitol mall from the podium? The choice is ours, the vote is ours: #VoteDisability

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  4. I agree, that I was VERY Disappointed that persons with disabilities were never mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union Addresses. I was anxiously waiting for something and nothing was said. As one of the advocates who marched in DC in 1989 for our ADA Civil Rights March down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Capitol Building, I know there are many issues still undone. Of course, if things are still undone since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I’m not too surprised that the ADA Movement still has work ahead for future US Government Officials. I always go vote, even though, due to inaccessible polling places, many times it is not without a GREAT deal of effort. Also voting by mail means having to vote so early, that we do not get to review the candidates as thoroughly, and I’d rather be able to go to the poll myself, not do it by mail.

    Regarding Obamacare, one issue that it does not fix is how many doctors refuse to purchase those wheelchair accessible examination tables, Those plug into the regular electrical wall socket, so that the exam table raises and lowers, so that patients in wheelchair can more easily transfer onto the exam table. Afterall who can get a physical exam while seated in a wheelchair. If you need a “well woman exam” or for a man a proper exam for issues with a prostate. One must be able to get onto the table with ease. I refuse to have people try to pick me up and take a chance on being dropped and wind up with a broken hip, limb or worse. If the doctors used their tax credit to purchase those exam tables which plug into the wall so that the table will raise and lower then, it wouldn’t be an issue!

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  5. He spoke about movements to expand civil rights and cautioned us to reject any policy that targets people because of race or religion, but what about policy that threatens my civil rights as a person living with a psychiatric disability? Why is he not applying this principle to his Executive Action on reducing gun violence? He said one thing and did another.

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  6. President Obama has done a lot for Americans with disabilities, whether or not he mentioned it. It was his final State of the Union address, and he wanted to go out on top and highlight the good that he and his party have managed to accomplish this past year, especially. I do concur with Al’s statement above, however.

    I do think that his overlooking of a full one-sixth of the nation in his address was poor judgement, for which he and his party might pay. But the major laws that were passed and signed into law by him benefitting Americans with disabilities helped to make many but not all of the weak areas of The ADA stronger. One day it will be strengthened further.

    Why weren’t people with disabilities addressed this time while the rest of us as a nation were? We were, and we weren’t the only ones specifically not mentioned. Why didn’t he contribute more to the actual writing of the ADA Amendments Act, leaving so much of it up to a Speech Writer?

    So many unanswered questions remain, and I’m sure that we’ll find the answers to them in one of his upcoming books. As has already been shown, President Obama makes good use of the constitutional latitude afforded he and his office to change existing laws through Presidential Proclamations, and I project that we’ll see at least one more which addresses Accessible Voting Booths before November.

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