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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Disability Politics

Harold Pollack (Professor of Social Service Administration – University of Chicago) – has what I think is a very, very thoughtful op-ed in the NY Times here.  Well worth reading the whole thing, but in a nutshell, he makes the point that disability policy (more specifically, care for people with serious disabilities) has progressed in this country in part because it has remained relatively free of the rancor of the culture wars.  He is critical of statements like Rick Santorum’s (“One of the things you don’t know about ObamaCare [is that it requires] free prenatal testing … Why?  Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions, and therefore, less care that has to be done, because we will cull the ranks for the disabled in our society.”) and Sarah Palin’s (“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.”).  Pollack criticizes these statements not just for being untrue, but for “spreading a poisonous meme: that liberals disdain the disabled and look down upon parents who raise children with physical or intellectual limitations.”

I agree with Pollack that we have made progress in this country in terms of how we treat and legislate on behalf of individuals with disabilities (although we still have a long way to go), and that is at least partly because, in his words, these developments happened “outside the usual disfiguring frame of partisan politics.”  That is one of the things I have enjoyed working in this particular area – to be sure, politics are not irrelevant and academics/policymakers/advocates have political agendas, but disability is the one minority group we could all join at any time, and it tends to cut across the political aisle.  One byproduct of this is that political change can happen: both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act passed with broad bipartisan consensus.  But being somewhat removed from the political process also means that people just do not think about these issues all that much – part of the “backlash” against the ADA can be attributed to the fact that society just might not have been ready to extend  broad civil rights protections to this group.  The litigation behavior is also somewhat different from other groups: I have written here about how cause lawyers for the disability cause face different challenges than cause lawyers for conservative causes and the gay rights movement, both of whom tend to repeatedly face off against each otehr in litigation.  Despite these unfortunate statements, I still think we are a ways off from disability becoming part of the culture wars.  If that were to happen, the academic field might get more attention, but I agree with Professor Pollack that the policy arena would suffer.

Posted by Michael Waterstone on March 29, 2012 at 10:12 AM | Permalink


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