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."