Amid all the babble about Sarah Palin’s recent resignation as Alaska’s governor and amid all the speculation about her potential presidential bid, few have noted a new job for which she is eminently qualified: civil rights leader for people with intellectual
The current fuss about Palin adds up to nothing more than posturing, spinning and playground name-calling. It’s what makes politics distasteful to so many. If I were her, I’d ignore all of it and forge ahead in a new direction, one where she could make a real difference.
All around the world, parents of children with Down Syndrome struggle against the stings of prejudice and fear while seeking acceptance for their children. There are precious few champions of this cause. The struggle of people with intellectual disabilities is an authentic civil rights movement, one in which Palin carries powerful credentials. Her infant son Trig has Down Syndrome.
She’d be fighting deep-seated prejudices. Over the years, I’ve heard countless cries for help from mothers and dads. I’ll never forget the father who emailed that he was being told to kill his baby daughter because of her Down Syndrome. Or the mother who was told her daughter with Down Syndrome was a “cabbage.” One woman was told to abort her Down Syndrome child because carrying the baby was akin to having a malignant tumor.
Most of these parents don’t dwell on the ways in which they themselves feel humiliated and scorned. They’re ready to fight for change. But they need help in creating social momentum, community awareness, political action.
Palin could be a force for all of those. Her faith, her recognition of the value of every life, would help her. And she could have leverage as a parent advocate that she couldn’t have as a politician.
As a parent, imagine the attention she could help draw to challenges children with Down Syndrome face in early childhood. There are far too few early childhood centers for children with special needs, far too few day-care options, far too few preschools that accept children with Down Syndrome. Palin’s name could do a lot for the cause of early childhood service improvements.
Imagine the impact she would have if she testified before Congress about the health disparities facing children with Down Syndrome. Good medical care is difficult to get and frequently substandard. I remember one medical professional telling me that care for children with special needs was usually “quick and dirty. Get them in and get them out.” Palin could expose the dirty secret that people with special needs are among the most discriminated against populations in the health care world.
Imagine Palin leading efforts to awaken her community and her country to the gifts of people with Down Syndrome. Today, when parents learn that they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome, the vast majority choose to terminate (some estimates are as high as 90%). This doesn’t have to be about the legality of abortion but rather about informing
prospective parents that people with Down Syndrome can lead happy and productive lives. That’s a message that both the conservative Sam Brownback and the liberal Ted Kennedy have endorsed. I bet they’d both welcome Palin as a messenger.
Some will argue that Sarah Palin is too controversial to be effective in these roles. To the contrary: she could be a uniter. On Friday, President Obama is set to announce his intention to make the United States a signatory to the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Couldn’t Palin join with the president in helping our nation renew its global leadership for full inclusion of people with disabilities?
When a child is young and vulnerable, a parent has a unique opportunity to speak with full authority about the need to change attitudes and services. Only a parent feels the struggle deep in her gut. Only a parent can know what it’s like to feel the sting of the
stares, the pain of a child’s humiliation.
Could Sarah Palin, private citizen, be a parent for this cause, one deeply rooted in the faith that teaches that all life is sacred? I think she could. I hope she tries.