I came to this State of the Union address a little less enthusiastic about Obama than I have been in the past, a sentiment that I think many share these days. I’m disappointed that some of the promises that he ran on the first time around, like closing Guantanomo Bay, haven’t been kept. I’m disillusioned (but not particularly surprised) by the revelations in the past year about the NSA’s activities. Now that I’m seeing what Obamacare looks like…and seeing how different it was from what I thought it was going to be…I’m questioning, asking, “Is this what Americans call universal health care? Damn it, you’re not doing it right!”
Do I still believe wholeheartedly that he and Biden were the lesser of two evils in 2012? I wouldn’t change a thing about how that election turned out, because…well, let’s not get into that right now.
Back to the State of the Union address.
Let’s Get the Big Stuff Out of the Way
While I certainly think it’s appropriate to highlight and show a great deal of appreciation for the service and commitment to country of a young man like Cory Remsberg, who did ten military deployments…damn it, damn it, damn it, I wish that the Democrats would stop using disabled people to emotionally manipulate the audience during speeches! They did it with Gabby Giffords during the Democratic National Convention, and when I saw that Obama was working up it in the State of the Union address the other night, it just annoyed me to no end. Why? Because it’s exploitative and disrespectful. And, in Remsberg’s case, it was amazingly hypocritical, in light of the fact that services for veterans in general in the United States (and in Canada – my country doesn’t get a free pass in this area) are so disgustingly inadequate.
And yes it’s certainly wrong that women still make 77 cents to the male dollar, and that the minimum wage is so low. In light of the attention that President Obama gave these issues in the State of the Union address, I really wish that he’d once and for all close the damn legislative loophole that’s allowing organizations like Goodwill to pay disabled workers as low as $0.22 an hour for work for which non-disabled people would receive minimum wage. All this talk of being for the American worker sounds very disingenuous otherwise. Obama be striving to make labour conditions better for *all* Americans, not just the non-disabled ones.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system…
Ableism in the State of the Union Address
The truth is, besides the bit about Remsberg, and some promises about how Wounded Warriors was going to be reformed and the backlog on veterans’ disability claims addressed (with no details about how he plans to do either of these things), there was nothing in the State of Union address for disabled people – and I’m fairly convinced it’s because no one really thought of them while the State of the Union address was being written. From the very basic language to the grand vision, the State of the Union address painted a picture of America where disabled people only occupy a very small corner in veteran’s hospitals.
Which just a bit more acknowledgement of disabled people than in Obama’s past State of the Union addresses. Business as usual, otherwise: Lots of grand ideas and great-sounding plans – for people who are non-disabled, whose children are non-disabled, who are disabled but can hold down jobs and support themselves. I sometimes wonder just how many politicians truly realize that disabled people actually (gasp!) experience discrimination on the basis of disability. You might wonder if Obama has truly internalized the idea, given that the two times in the State of the Union Address that he listed the personal characteristics on which he believed that people shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against others (religion, sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.), he didn’t mention disability, or something akin to it…something that acknowledges a belief that ableism is wrong.
I thought about situations under which I’d be willing to let this go:
- If he was speaking off the top of his head, and it was simply an omission.
- If there wasn’t a teleprompter
- If disabled people weren’t the world’s largest minority Read more here
But maybe not even in those circumstances, because the omission, by the most powerful man in the world, of disabled people as group that experiences discrimination, sends a message. It tells the world that ableism isn’t a big deal and that both specific disability-related issues facing America as a country (such as last year’s failure to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the renewed energy behind getting it ratified) and the larger issues facing it as a member of the world community aren’t important.
If he doesn’t think ableism is a big deal, why should anyone else? Even if his message wasn’t deliberate, it was powerful. It made me wonder (as it has when listening to all of his State of the Union addresses) how, when he explains his grand visions, disabled people fit into them…or if they’re going to have a place at all.
Like I Said, Business as Usual
Which is to say, this State of the Union address left me with the same questions that basically the last one did…which shouldn’t shock me, according to Politco, where I read today that Obama’s State of the Union addresses are even more formulaic that I remember them being (Read more here), but still…:
- Will high-quality pre-kindergarten programming, “real-world education and hands-on training” in high school, and increased access to post-secondary education really be available to “every child”? Will supports be available in the schools so that students with every variety of disability, from the moment that they start school, will not only learn that they have more options upon high school graduation than going to work in a sheltered workshop, but that they get the education that they need to pursue those options?
- How will these job training programs that Joe Biden is going to put in place address the entire problem of high unemployment (much higher than than for non-disabled people) rates for disabled people? If the experience of “every” job seeker in America should be that they should easily be able to find work, then not only do a whole lot of disabled people who have been out of work a long time need job training that accommodates a variety of learning styles, physical needs, and challenges arising from social barriers (cost, accessibility, transportation, etc.), then employers need training as well. Disabled workers are still a largely untapped labour market of immensely qualified people. Outdated fears about accommodations and stigma about disability make employers wary of them. What’s the administration’s plan to address these challenges?
- What will Obama’s administration do to address the challenges that disabled people have with the voting process? Will they be included for consideration when the process is re-engineered so that no one has to wait for more than half an hour to vote? Does this mean that the President is willing to take a good, hard look at accessibility of voting stations? Transportation, especially in rural areas? Accommodations for people with low or no vision, or who can’t read, or who have learning or intellectual disabilities, or who don’t have use of their arms and can’t write, or whose wheelchair can’t fit into a voting booth…do I need to go on?
State of the Union…State of Whose Union?
From a policy standpoint, I really don’t see what about “Americans have disabilities” is so hard to get. 57.6 million Americans had in disabilities in 2010 (Read more here). 2010. Four years ago. The population is aging, so no one should be planning for the number to decrease. If governments (and I say governments because Canada sweeps disabled people and their concerns under the rug as well) aren’t aware of the implications of not planning for the needs of disabled citizens and of not acknowledging them as a group, (if nothing else because disabled people and the people involved with them are a good chunk of votes), then it seems to me that a couple of things could be happening:
- They’re misinformed about disability issues.
- Disability issues aren’t hitting the radar.
- Disability issues are hitting the radar, and they just aren’t important enough to the politicians that that they’ll get the facts, or make them part of the platform if they do have them.
I’m not sure what’s happening with Obama, given what he said in this State of the Union address. But I’m not even American, and I’m kind of tired of waiting to hear how his America includes disabled people.
How about you?
Before I go…thank you to the group of kick-ass disability advocates who put up with the the crazy Canadian crashing their #SOTU4PWD (State of the Union for People with Disabilities) live-tweet party. I only wish I’d gotten there right at the beginning of the event, because I *loved* the insights, and it was great to see at least some of the State of the Union address with such an amazing group of people.