REUTERS

Fear, Uncertainty Loom for Disabled Community Under Trump

The positions and past histories of Cabinet members leading the administration indicate a hostile environment for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are becoming increasing fearful of what life will look like under the new Trump administration, whose positions and proposed polices range from outright disregard for the disabled community to a reversion of significant advances made over recent decades.


While President Donald Trump's public mocking of a journalist's physical disability during a campaign rally last year was a blatant affront to people with disabilities, what has people most worried are the positions Trump has taken with regard to healthcare and the individuals he's chosen to run the federal agencies.

Trump's new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder and Housing Secretary Ben Carson, among others, have spotty records with regard to standing up for the rights of people with disabilities, and their statements and past actions indicate a hostile environment over the next four years.

The most contentious recently was DeVos, confirmed last week to head up the Department of Education despite her lack of experience in the field. As a billionaire, neither DeVos nor her children have ever attended public school, and it is the public school system that is extremely vital for people with disabilities.

During her confirmation hearing DeVos raised concerns when she appeared to be unfamiliar with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and said she believed educational rights for children with disabilities should be left up to the states.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures students with disabilities get a free and adequate public education. It allows students with disabilities to learn with their peers and requires schools to put together an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which provides the accommodations needed for that student, such as extra time on tests.

DeVos is an adamant supporter of school choice and voucher programs, which allow parents to pick between public and private schools with government assistance. Many see this as a threat to the public school system, as dollars will be repurposed from public schools to private ones. Many of these private schools require applicants to waive the rights provided in the IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities act, which in turn can lead to the students not getting the proper support they need.

Many people with disabilities see these programs as non-inclusive and a danger to a public school system that currently allows people with disabilities to thrive and pursue an adequate education. In a sign of opposition to DeVos, every Democrat in the Senate, along with Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against her confirmation. Vice President Mike Pence had to issue the tie-breaking vote in favor of her confirmation — the first time in U.S. history to approve a Cabinet secretary.

On Friday two U.S. senators from the state of Washington wrote a letter to DeVos demanding she "provide an immediate and detailed explanation for why the resource website for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has disappeared."

The website, which was established under President George W. Bush, offers information for educators, advocates and parents about the law and the rights within it. The website now redirects the public to a site that "lacks much of the information previously available."

"The Department's failure to keep this critical resource operational makes it harder for parents, educators and administrators to find the resources they need to implement this federal law and protect the rights of children with disabilities," said Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray in their letter to DeVos.

Last month it was noted that nearly all references to disabilities on the White House website has disappeared as well.

Meanwhile, Sessions, now the nation's top law enforcement officer, has argued against federal protections for people with disabilities and, in fact, believes those protections do a disservice.

While serving as a U.S. senator from Alabama in 2000, Sessions argued in a speech before Congress that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provided "special treatment for certain children" and was "a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America." He added, "I say that very sincerely," and later said the law, which was passed in 1975, "may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today."

Sessions has supported segregating students with disabilities, which is a huge regression from the progress that IDEA has provided for millions of students with disabilities.

Additionally, Sessions has defended the U.S. Supreme Court when it made a ruling preventing people with disabilities from being able to sue states over ADA violations, even when other Republicans were critical of the ruling. People with disabilities rely on the Department of Justice to uphold and enforce the ADA.

With regard to the Department of Labor, which ensures people with disabilities are treated fairly when seeking work, and whose role it is to make sure the ADA is being complied with within businesses, Trump's nomination of Andrew Puzder to lead that department also raises red flags.

Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of fast-food establishments Hardee's and Carl's Jr., has no government experience, and his company has faced legal issues in the past concerning worker's rights and discrimination.

Under his tenure, CKE Restaurants was forced to settle for violating the ADA in 2005 for not hiring a woman because of her disability. People with disabilities worry that there are already a number of roadblocks in their way with regard to seeking employment and working, and that Puzder will allow roadblocks to get bigger.

Furthermore, housing and independent living are other critical issues for people with disabilities. The majority of people living in federal housing overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are elderly or disabled. HUD makes sure that people with disabilities have access to housing they can afford. Trump's nominee, Ben Carson, again has no experience in government or housing, and his comments on the matter worry this community.

The former surgeon has spoken about reforming federal housing and getting rid of people who depend on the government. People with disabilities worry this could hinder their access to housing in the future if big changes are made. Housing discrimination is something many people with disabilities experience when looking to buy or rent. Carson's statements that discrimination is not a huge issue currently in this country, but rather an issue from the past, makes people with disabilities wonder if he will truly fight against housing discrimination, as HUD is responsible for.

The start to the Trump administration has put families of people with disabilities in a state of uncertainty. Many of his nominations for his Cabinet have not been advocates for people with disabilities in the past, causing fear for what the future will hold. Many people with disabilities are not asking for new legislation, just the enforcement and upholding of the federal rights and protections that have been put in place through existing laws like the ADA and IDEA.

REUTERS

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