With the 2020 election in full swing, parents of autistic children are watching the crowded field of Democratic candidates and their education proposals. For those parents, candidate Andrew Yang from New York has emerged with a heavy focus on disability policy.
“One of my boys is on the autism spectrum — I know how invaluable resources and intervention can be, particularly if adopted early on,” Yang said in a statement on his campaign website. “As a country, we should provide ample resources to parents to be able to intervene to support the development of children with autism or who are exceptional in other ways.”
Treating and De-stigmatizing Autism
Recently, Yang’s campaign unveiled plans to support children with disabilities, including autism. The plan promises increased funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law passed in 1975 requires schools to provide disabled students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for their specific needs.
“The problem is that due to limited funds, many schools have trouble providing adequate resources to help these students achieve the goals laid out in their IEPs,” Yang said in a statement. His new plan aims to commit $50 billion to IDEA funding, as well as $20 billion in special education funding. The plan also promises to increase research funding at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Yang’s new pledge comes on the heels of prior campaign promises to make autism treatment a key issue. A section of his campaign website dedicated to autism intervention funding says that as president, Yang will “direct the Department of Education to support states (with information and funding) in implementing programs to identify and treat autism.” In addition, Yang pledged to de-stigmatize autism and other neurological conditions.
Disability and the Freedom Dividend
Some critics have wondered how Yang’s plans will work alongside his campaign’s other big idea, the Freedom Dividend. Yang’s website calls the plan “a universal basic income of $1,000/month, $12,000 a year, for every American adult over the age of 18.”
At an autism awareness event held by Yang’s campaign in Iowa City last month, NPR spoke to Tammy Nyden, mother of a disabled child, about the Freedom Dividend.
“When I look at the platform, that’s to replace SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) and other things,” Nyden told NPR. “And while $1,000 is better than the, I think, $721 that a person with disabilities can get per month, you can’t live on either of those.”
In response to these concerns, Yang told NPR, “The Freedom Dividend is universal and opt-in. There are some instances where it might substitute for existing benefits. In many other instances, like Social Security, it stacks on top. So it would depend upon the source of the nature of the program.”
Furthermore, Yang’s website states that the monthly $1,000 can be collected along with SSDI. “Most people who are legally disabled receive both SSDI and SSI,” the statement reads. “Under the universal basic income, those who are legally disabled would have a choice between collecting SSDI and the $1,000, or collecting SSDI and SSI, whichever is more generous.”
Directing Support Toward Children With Disabilities
Other disability advocates have criticized Yang’s specific focus on disabled children. One of these advocates is Ari Ne’eman, a senior research associate at the Project on Disability at Harvard Law. “That’s a sore spot in the disability community,” Ne’eman, who co-founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told NPR. “Often you will see the public very quick to talk about cute, disabled children, but when those children grow up, being very reluctant to provide support and services in order to be able to have a life with dignity and independence.”
Yang, however, maintains a focus on childhood treatment of autism is crucial. “I will say that I’m particularly passionate about helping kids and parents understand it,” he told NPR, “because the early ages and stages are so crucial to kids’ development where the right intervention can actually change the course of that person’s life, and be the difference between them leading a happy, productive, fully integrated life and needing assistance for their entire life.”