A presidential appointment this week to a federal disability committee is drawing backlash from a group of self-advocates.
President Barack Obama said early this week that he would appoint Autism Speaks executive Peter Bell to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
The committee of 21 citizens and 13 federal representatives is tasked with advising the president and the secretary of health and human services on issues affecting Americans with intellectual disabilities.
Bell’s appointment is now drawing criticism, however. Members of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network say they are disappointed in the selection of Bell who they call “anti-vaccine.” Specifically they cite Bell’s previous role as head of Cure Autism Now, which merged with Autism Speaks in 2007.
“Bell’s appointment shows such contrast to the forward motion the Obama administration has shown in the areas of autism and disability as a whole,” said Melody Latimer, director of community engagement for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “The link between autism and vaccines has long been discredited, and so an appointment placing an anti-vaccine leader in a position to influence a greater audience and re-open the issue is disappointing and ill-advised.”
Bell declined to comment on the allegations. In the past, however, he has spoken up about the possibility of a link between autism and vaccines. In one example from his days at Cure Autism Now, Bell disputed the findings of a 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine that dismissed such a link.
“We cannot ignore the rapid rise in the rate of autism that occurred during the 1990’s, in tandem with the increased use of thimerosal-containing vaccines in the U.S.,” Bell said in a statement at the time, which is still posted on Autism Speaks’ website. “We must continue to explore every possible avenue, including various environmental toxins, to get at the underlying issues that are affecting a generation of our children.”
Autism Speaks officials would not address the vaccine-related concerns directly but said they are very happy about Bell’s appointment.
“We are thrilled about Peter’s well-deserved nomination to this important advisory committee and share the White House’s commitment to improving the lives of all people with intellectual disabilities,” Autism Speaks president Mark Roithmayr said in a statement.
Bell also has support from some outside of Autism Speaks. Patricia Wright, national director of autism services at Easter Seals, said she’s worked with Bell recently to advocate for reauthorization of the Combating Autism Act and on initiatives focused on adults with autism. Given the significant number of individuals with both autism and intellectual disability, Wright said she thought Bell would bring a much-needed perspective to the committee.
White House officials said they will proceed with the appointment as planned and are waiting for some paperwork to be filed to make Bell’s new position official.
“The president stands behind this appointment and we look forward to Peter’s contributions to the committee,” Obama spokesman Shin Inouye told Disability Scoop.
In addition to Bell, Obama has added several new members to the intellectual disability committee in recent months, including “Glee” actress Lauren Potter who has Down syndrome.