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Group Urges Presidential Candidates to Take Stand on Disability Issues

Disability issues have received little more than incidental attention during this presidential campaign season. But RespectAbility, a 3-year-old advocacy organization, is pushing to raise the topic's profile this year.

About 1 in 5 American adults has some sort of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means that people with disabilities are the nation's largest minority group, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the president of the the organization.Justin-Sanders-Iowa-300.jpg

So far, though, only five of the candidates remaining in the race as of Feb. 3—Jeb
Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders—have responded to a wide-ranging 16-item questionnaire developed by the organization. RespectAbility is not grading the candidates on the substance of their promises and proposals; just answering all of the questions earns a full 100 percent.

Only Democrats Clinton and Sanders have received a 100 percent score. (Of note: the Clinton campaign in January released a proposal for addressing autism from birth through adulthood.)

On the Republican side, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's responses are the most comprehensive, and he received a score of 94 percent. 

Question Touching on Special Education Issues

RespectAbility's questionnaire for candidates covers issues such as barriers to employment, health care, affordable housing, medical marijuana, and federal benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. 

The question that comes closest to touching on special education reads: "Many people who are born with disabilities, especially minorities with learning and mental health differences, are not diagnosed and/or their disability issues go unaddressed. This leads to school dropouts and a 'school to prison pipeline.' Do you have a plan to enable students with disabilities to get the services they need to succeed in school and life?"

In response, Bush said that children deserve "the right to go to school and learn without fearing pain and isolation." Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and GOP candidate, said that the government should allow Individuals with Disabilities Education Act money to be used "for tutors and other training programs." Christie, a Republican candidate and currently the governor of New Jersey, touted many of his state's programs, including programs that support integrated employment and transition services. 

Former Secretary of State Clinton said she would fight to ensure that the federal government pays for more of the costs of educating students with disabilities. Back in 1975, when the law that was to become the IDEA was first proposed, Congress said it would pay 40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure for students with disabilities. But the federal contribution to special education costs has never exceeded 18.5 percent. 

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, said that in addition to increasing federal funding, he would expand early-childhood education and provide more money to the Education Department's office for civil rights, which oversees enforcement of the IDEA. 

The organization plans to continue pressing candidates for responses, said Lauren Appelbaum, its communications director. She believes more candidates will get on board; Christie has directed his staffers to answer the questions that were left unaddressed, and Republicans Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump have also said they will respond.

"Our goal is to get all the candidates thinking about these issues, talking about these issues, and coming up with plans," Appelbaum said.

Photo: RespectAbility fellow Justin Chappell interviewing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, on the campaign trail.—courtesy of RespectAbility

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