It’s almost 2018. A lot of people, both in the disability community and in the special needs parents community have been shocked at our change in fortunes. People have had to march to D.C., not to get the Disability Integration Act passed, not to ban restraints or seclusions, not to ban subminimum wages, but to protect what we have gained. We have an Education Secretary who thinks that whether or not schools have to educate the disabled should be left up to the states (even though last time the choice was theirs, all of the states declined). Republicans won’t fund CHIP unless Democrats agree to sacrifice a different group of disabled people. Medicaid is under constant attack as is the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Yet it didn’t have to be this way. Forty years ago, no politician would dare attack the disabled. Anyone who did risked needing a new job. Both parties took us into account. Even Ronald “government is the problem” Reagan gave us some of what we wanted when he signed the Katie Beckett Waiver, allowing disabled kids to receive services at home instead of having to spend their childhoods in nursing homes for the dying. What changed?
Special needs parents and disability rights activists drifted apart at the exact wrong time.
During the time of the biggest gains in disability rights activism, like Medicaid, special education, and improvements in public transit, the special needs parents community and the disability community fought on one front. This allowed us to get things we wanted from both parties. The idea that disability impacted everyone regardless of party, helped get the rank-and-file aboard the concept of disability rights. The only real disagreement was how to go about it. Democrats favoring things like Medicaid and government action and GOP favoring incentivizing private sector solutions. But a couple things happened.
First, special needs parents and some of the disability community became complacent. The ability to get bi-partisan agreement on disability rights became a victim of its own success. We all figured there was no reason to consider disability rights in our votes. Both parties agreed with us on some level, even if methodologies were different. We stopped voting for pro-disability candidates. And the ball stopped advancing.
There’s also the factor of IEP fatigue. Some special needs parents, having spent years squabbling with public school teachers who think that that their child’s IEP was optional, found themselves seriously distrusting government. This made them more receptive to the far-right, or at least thinking that it wouldn’t matter if various pro-disability laws were repealed.
Second, the GOP went completely insane. Having purged their moderate element, the Tea Party went on the attack against all things government. This included Medicaid, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and many pro-disability laws at the state level. It became impossible to pass the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would have banned restraints and seclusions in schools outside of emergencies, a high priority among special needs parents.
Then in 2016, the GOP ceded control of the party to people who think that treating minorities, including the disabled, with basic human decency is oppressive political correctness. The very people who fought against us 40 years ago, the ones who said that special education stole from other kids, the ones who said that accessible transit is a waste of money, are firmly in control of a major political party.
And many special needs parents and disabled people are in denial.
A lot of special needs parents and disabled people are stuck in the “old way” of doing things. Many of us think we can vote for whoever we want and if we do some marching, write some letters with stats and heartfelt stories, everything will turn out just fine. Since the beginning of the disability rights movement, there is no precedent for an entirety of a political party’s Representatives suddenly becoming openly hostile to disabled people.
People will cite the example of Justin Dart, a disabled conservative who helped get the ADA passed. However, they ignore a crucial fact: Justin Dart would be drummed out of today’s GOP. Sure, they’d like him just fine if he stayed on the traditional GOP talking points of lower taxes and fewer regulations. But the minute he started talking about accessibility, the audience would call him an SJW or a snowflake. The conspiracy nut wing would have a field day, saying that he was advocating for socialism or political correctness. In short, they’d only like him if he checked that disability stuff at the door, something he didn’t do then and wouldn’t do now.
Adding to this is the idea that disabled people were being hysterical. Many special needs parents thought that disability rights advocates, including their own children, were exaggerating the dangers of the return of high-risk pools and Medicaid cuts. This perception was not helped by able-bodied progressives spending most of the time allotted to talk about disability issues focusing on Donald Trump’s incident with a disabled reporter rather than things that actually matter. Hillary Clinton and progressive Super PACs had more ads about that one incident than on any of the bad disability policies. This led to parents and fence-sitting disabled people writing us off.
The final ingredient is denial in the disability and special needs parent communities. Many thought that Trump wouldn’t be so bad. They thought that Trump, McConnell and Ryan wouldn’t actually do the things that they said they were going to do. Failing that, they thought McConnell and co. would only go after those that they didn’t like. Parents never thought that when the far-right talked about dismantling Medicaid, they meant for their kids too.
And now we’re down the rabbit hole.
Parents, disabled people, need to make united stand at ballot box
The fact is, until the GOP moderates its approach on disability, special needs parents and disabled people should not regard them as potential allies no matter how nice the people at the local offices are. Not that Dems are perfect but there isn’t a lot of outright hostility. At worst, Dems in general don’t know any better. But there is something resembling a desire to learn. We can work with that. What we cannot work with, is malice.
And until this malicious element gets rebuked at the ballot box, we’re not going to see advancements in disability rights. Disability rights groups won’t see the Disability Integration Act passed by politicians who have chosen gutting the ADA as the hill they want to die on. Special needs parents won’t see restraints and seclusions banned under a President whose Education Secretary thinks IDEA should be optional. Nor will they see better in-home care services so that they won’t be so overwhelmed that they have a breakdown.
We’re not going to get what we want by voting for people who have publicly said they’re against what we want. We’re not going to change their minds with marches, letters, phone calls or any of the other old weapons. The only thing that’ll change their minds is being voted out. If you want disability-friendly things, you have to vote for disability-friendly politicians.