Who's Responsible?

Blue circle with white icon of a pillared government building

Iain Duncan Smith quits over planned disability benefit changes
BBC News - March 19, 2016

Let’s step back a bit from the specifics of this situation, in which Ian Duncan Smith, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Work and Pensions, resigned yesterday, seemingly to protest further cuts in monetary assistance to people with disabilities. Let’s step back, as I did yesterday after reading about this, and think about what’s unusual and significant here.

First of all, a cabinet-level government official resigned at least partly because he disagreed with the way a disability policy was being handled.

Second, even if he had other reasons, such as petty political infighting or disagreement over another issue entirely, the reason he gave for resigning was the disability cuts.

Third, as far as I can tell, Ian Duncan Smith isn’t an obscure government official, he’s a household name in the UK. His resignation is a big deal, and not just to the disability community.

That says something about disability issues. They are not just important to disabled people and people who specialize in the field. Disability issues can be important enough to trigger real political crises, including firings or resignations, when government disability policies goes pear-shaped. It is an indicator of the importance attached to disability policy in the UK that this has happened. Issues regarded as less important and more narrowly specialized don’t tend to prompt firings or ruin peoples’ careers, because few people really care about them.

Which got me thinking … who is responsible for disability policy in the United States government? Who would we be fired, or resign in protest, if terrible things were to happen to disability policy in the US? If there are such people, would anyone know their names outside the disability activist community? Has anyone in the U.S. government ever been fired, or resigned in protest, because of botched or immoral disability policy? Shouldn’t there at least be someone in the federal government who has to take some kind of overall responsibility not just for communicating with the disability community, but for the success or failure of disability policy throughout government?

I posted some of those questions on Twitter yesterday. One person replied that Gen. Eric Shinseki left the Veteran’s Administration under a cloud, largely because of the massive backlog of unprocessed veterans disability claims. That sort of counts, but it only affects veterans, not the whole disability community.

I also chatted about this a bit with Greg Beratan, one of my #CripTheVote partners. I said that the UK story got me thinking, really for the first time, that it might be good to have a high-level post in the federal government to oversee all disability policy across all government departments. That way, not only would we possible get better coordination and clearer, more consistent thinking about disability policy, we’d also have someone to either praise or blame when disability policies go pear-shaped. I still think that’s worth considering, although Greg pointed out that might tend to let other departments off the hook on disability matters. I would hate to see a situation where everyone else in government handed all responsibility for access, accommodation, and policy-making over to one person or a poorly-funded office with inadequate power. A disability “czar” sounds good in a way, but it also could easily become a fig leaf.

The closest we have now to some kind of central authority on disability matters in the federal government is the National Council on Disability, but it’s mission is to make recommendations. It has no authority to plan, direct, or enforce disability policy. In the past few Presidential administrations, there has also been one or two White House staffers whose job is to be a liaison to the disability community. That’s been valuable, but it’s more of a communication thing, not an office we can hold responsible for how the government deals with disabled citizens and disability-related programs.

So far, the disability policy idea with the most votes in our #CripTheVote Disability Issues Survey is, “Hire and appoint more disabled people to government and policy-making positions.” That’s not quite the same thing as putting one person in charge of all disability policy, but it sort of relates. Maybe there is an untapped desire in the disability community to bring some order and unity to the U.S. government’s scattered, fragmented disability policies. Putting it all in the hands of some clearly identifiable people with life experience of disability might make disability policy better in the long run. It might also raise the profile of disability in government. And it might well help focus the disability community’s advocacy efforts if there was one office we could turn to, in partnership or, if necessary, in anger … someone to hold responsible, whether for good or for ill.

One other problem though … who in the disability community would want to have such a job?