Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Connecticut governor's race, disability is front and center

From the Norwich Bulletin in Conn.:

A statue that depicts one of America’s most charismatic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was sculpted to show him in a way he wanted to be seen — able-bodied. But the man who led the United States out of the Great Depression and through World War II was partially crippled from polio.

In today’s world, a politician with a disability can be perceived positively by constituents, disability advocate Elanah Sherman, of Norwich, said.

This dynamic is unfolding in Connecticut, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy (pictured left), who has dyslexia, and Republican candidate Tom Foley (pictured right), who has Bell’s palsy, are in a tight race.

“Now, it’s more an emblem of pride than an emblem of stigma,” Sherman said.
Some might say this points to dramatic change, but, rather, it is a softening of a harsh landscape for the disabled that has come with time and hard work.

“We are fighting societal attitudes with teaspoons — you’re still a person first, and then you have a disability,” said Catherine Ferry, executive director of the Norwich-based Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut. “The nature of stigma is still there. People don’t say things directly, but they will think in stereotypes.”

Advocates such as Ferry are hoping Tuesday’s election will continue to
help de-stigmatize the disabled. If either Foley or Malloy is elected, it will be the first time Connecticut will have a governor who has acknowledged a disability or condition that sets them apart. Independent Thomas E. Marsh also is on the gubernatorial ballot.

Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, graduated with a law degree from Boston College. When he was a child, his parents were told not to expect much from him, he said, and even labeled him mentally retarded. Today, Malloy often talks to parents and children about his disability.

His presence as governor could challenge perception. So could the election of Foley, a successful businessman who describes his Bell’s palsy, a drooping or paralysis on one side of the face, as an “affliction.”

“It would have an effect on the process of education, because it would increase awareness of capacity. And it would decrease damaging and limiting assumptions based on peoples’ diagnoses,” Sherman said.

But whether funding would be affected is another question. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has asked all state agencies to look to cut their budgets by 15 percent — the state is facing a $3.5 billion deficit.

Both candidates assert they would not compromise the safety net in place for the state’s most needy citizens.

“Growing up with a physical and learning disability is part of who I am,” Malloy said. “It formed me as a person; in some sense it’s reflected in the person I am. I love to work; I love to work hard. I think I express an empathy and compassion for people down on their luck, suffering from mental illness, or circumstances beyond their control.

“It’s at the very core of who I am. It’s certainly one of the reasons I think we need to keep a safety net intact in Connecticut. So much damage has been done to services for people who need our help.”

Foley is quick to point out he does not consider his Bell’s palsy a disability. But he said it has increased his awareness of how a disability can affect a person.

“I don’t want people thinking I’m thinking I’m disabled. Because that would be insensitive to people with real disabilities,” Foley said.

But while on the campaign trail, Foley discovered a need to explain that his stoic facial expression did not convey a lack of empathy or emotion but was because of Bell’s palsy. It affects the nerve muscles in the face, causing a lack of movement and symmetry. Beyond that, the flatness in his face sometimes would be perceived as a frown, he said.

“People can sometimes read it as stern or detached,” Foley said.

Foley was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy in 1994, but he said his empathy for people with disabilities does not stem from that, but from being the primary person in charge of caring for his sister, who has bipolar disorder.

“I have said that I’ve made the commitment that I’m not going to reduce on the backs of the most needy — the disabled, the poor, the elderly. We need to continue to have high-quality service. I’m not talking to reduce that. You simply can’t do that,” Foley said.

Having a governor empathetic to the disabled could translate to an awareness of the lives that are in his safekeeping, Ferry said.

“The other hope is that the needs of kids will be more visible to him instead of being just a number on a large state spreadsheet,” she said.