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Santorum Campaigns on His Disabled Daughter but Opposes Disability Rights | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Santorum Campaigns on His Disabled Daughter but Opposes Disability Rights

Lisa Simpson says prayer is the last refuge of scoundrels, but what if you already pray every day, as the ostentatiously devout Rick Santorum presumably does? Despite practically moving to Iowa to campaign for president, despite having impeccable conservative and personal morality credentials, and despite constant Republican dissatisfaction with their candidates, the former Pennsylvania senator just can’t seem to catch on.

So Santorum has resorted to exploiting his youngest child’s disability for political gain. In a new ad, Santorum holds his young daughter who was born with Trisomy 18, a condition similar to Down Syndrome, as he talks about her health struggles and his love for her.

“Some people describe people like Bella as ‘disabled children,’ ” Santorum says. “I look at her and I look at the joy, the simplicity, the love she emits, and it’s clear to that we are the disabled ones, not her.” I find it offensive that Santorum uses “disabled” as a synonym for small-minded or otherwise flawed. It’s akin to saying “retarded” as a synonym for stupid (e.g., “it’s clear that we are the retarded ones, not her”). But we know what he means and let’s give him credit for meaning well.

Unfortunately, this sentiment does not in any way relate to Santorum’s policy proposals or platform. And that’s the problem. Disability is a legitimate political issue, but not in the way that Santorum uses it. People with disabilities need real policy commitments, not feel-good commercials. Chiefly, say advocates, those policies are: robust protection from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), adequate funding and enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), and sufficient funding with the right priorities for health insurance and long term care. On every single one of these, Santorum, like nearly every other Republican, is either silent or in the wrong.

The ADA has been gutted by conservative judges, invariably Republican appointees, who have ruled that requiring state or local governments to make facilities accessible to people with disabilities violates states rights. When he was a senator, Santorum routinely voted in favor of George W. Bush’s anti–civil rights judicial nominees, without ever raising the question of how their rulings might impact people with disabilities. Nothing he has said on the campaign trail suggests he would take a different approach as president.

On education, Santorum’s fiscal conservatism is contrary to meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Santorum has pledged to “cut back a lot in the Department of Education.” That’s the Department responsible for overseeing IDEA. Santorum acknowledged there are programs “that may still need to be provided for on the federal level,” but IDEA is not one he mentioned.

As for healthcare, Santorum has taken advantage of his daughter’s disability to denigrate a proposal that was very much in the interests of people with disabilities, namely healthcare reform. Speaking in Iowa in April, Santorum claimed that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will deny coverage to children such as his daughter Bella. ““I look at how society with socialized medicine treats children like Bella, and children like Bella don’t survive, Children like Bella are not given the treatment that other children are given.” This is false. As Think Progress noted: “the law actually prevents insurance carriers from denying coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions (and disabilities), prohibits health plans from putting a lifetime dollar limit on benefits and offers new options for long-term care. This why groups like the American Association of People with Disabilities, National Organization For Rare Disorders, and The Arc of the United States not only support the law, but have gone filed an amicus brief [sic] in its defense.”

The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD’s) board chair responded in a letter at the time, writing, “We find the comments of Sen. Rick Santorum in his recent visit to Iowa regrettable and misleading.… AAPD firmly believes that the ACA advances health care coverage broadly for those with all types of disabilities. Most important, the ACA eliminates the use of pre-existing conditions to deny insurance to people with disabilities, like Senator Santorum’s daughter Isabella.”

So Santorum’s campaign pledge to repeal the ACA is the opposite of support for people with disabilities. “When you talk about valuing people with disabilities, is there a policy behind that?” asks Lara Schwartz, spokesperson for AAPD. “Most people with disabilities don’t have a dad who is a former senator. For them medical care, long-term care and education are potentially bank-breaking issues. Santorum should make sure everyone has the opportunities his daughter does.”

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