In February Vice President Joe Biden announced the selection of Kareem Dale as the first ever special assistant to the president for disability policy.

Now, in an exclusive interview with Disability Scoop, Dale defends the president following his misstep on The Tonight Show last week and talks about what’s next in the administration’s plans for people with disabilities.

Disability Scoop: What is your role as special assistant to the president for disability policy?

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Kareem Dale: I sit in the office of public liaison here at the White House and also sit in the Domestic Policy Council working on disability policy. I’m responsible for disability outreach to the community, letting the community know what’s going on and the administration related to disability issues and disability policy.

I’m also responsible for making sure that folks with disabilities are included into what we do here at the White House in terms of public events like inviting people to participate in our regional health care summit or fiscal summit or (bill) signings such as the stem cell signing, SCHIP legislation signing and things of that nature. Also, working from the policy angle and making sure the policy folks know about the real important policy issues as related to education and employment for people with disabilities.

Disability Scoop: I understand that you have a visual impairment yourself. What does it mean to be a person with a disability serving the Obama administration in this capacity?

Kareem Dale: To me it means that the president understands that in order for there to be really good representation for people with disabilities, it generally starts with a person with a disability working at the White House. Now, that’s not always the case. There are plenty of great advocates for people with disabilities who are not themselves people with disabilities. But it says a lot that we have actually two people with disabilities here at the White House working on disability issues, a total of three but two who are with disabilities. And, it means a great deal that President Obama has shown faith in me to help drive his vision for the community for people with disabilities with the first time a person who is blind is working in the White House at a senior level.

Disability Scoop: Does the government have a responsibility to people with disabilities? If so, to what extent?

Kareem Dale: Sure, the government should play a role and a responsibility for people with disabilities, just as the government has a role really for all Americans. It’s not really different than it is for non-disabled persons than it is for persons with disabilities. And that’s to make sure that people with disabilities are integrated and included into the overall effort of the government across federal agencies and at the White House. That really is the goal — to make sure that folks with disabilities are integrated and included into what we’re doing and not segregated out and separated into silos. And so that is the responsibility of the government to make sure that what they’re doing includes people with disabilities at every level.

Disability Scoop: President Obama’s comment about Special Olympics on The Tonight Show last week brought stereotypes of people with disabilities to the surface. What should people with disabilities take away from that episode?

Kareem Dale: To me, what people should take away from that is the response by President Obama and the administration. Number one, President Obama, before the event even aired, personally called Tim Shriver (chairman of Special Olympics) from Air Force One to personally apologize to Tim for the comments that he made. Obviously, there was no intent in the comments, no intent or ill will by President Obama. He quickly apologized.

There was a written statement that quickly went out from Air Force One by Deputy (Press) Secretary Burton apologizing for the comments. Number three, I think overall what’s very interesting about that day is that earlier that day I think, there was a town hall out in California where the president was asked a question about disabilities and I think his answer is frankly more illustrative of his positions on people with disabilities. It was a spontaneous question and a spontaneous answer. He talked about the whole idea that folks with disabilities need to be included and integrated into all federal government agencies, across agencies and not siloed out. And, there needs to be a comprehensive plan for people with disabilities in these federal agencies related to employment and other key issues such as health care and education, etc.

And so when you look at the comments, they were off-handed comments. The president certainly was sorry about it; he immediately apologized. But when you look at his overall record for people with disabilities in this administration and things he’s already done in terms of appointing three people in the White House, in terms of the SCHIP legislation signing, stem cell research, what he’s already done, I think his record speaks for itself and I think that’s the message that folks should take away from it.

Disability Scoop: Do you think that President Obama’s comments hint at some prejudices that still exist in society?

Kareem Dale:
Well, in terms of society it’s hard for me to speak for society. But I think, yeah, there probably are still some prejudices in society and some education that folks with disabilities have to do and everybody in the country has to do. I mean there are prejudices I think for lots of different segments of the population and there are still some prejudices towards people with disabilities. There are certainly no prejudices by President Obama or his administration, but in society generally I think there are prejudices that folks have to work towards changing and changing the perception for people with disabilities.

Disability Scoop: Autism in particular has been singled out in the disabilities agenda that’s on the White House Web site in a pretty prominent way. Is that just a factor of current times?

Kareem Dale: No, we view it as a comprehensive approach. I’m on the ground dealing with the autism community just as I deal with the community dealing with physical disabilities, just as I talk to the blind community everyday or just as I talk to the community of folks who are deaf everyday. There’s legislation that we’re going to be looking at for all different segments of the population and when I deal with the communities everyday I deal with them all together. I talk with each individual community. I work with them. I bring them all in for meetings, different groups at different times and with other groups. Autism groups will come in with some of the mental health groups or vice versa and sometimes groups will come in alone. Or autism groups may come in with the blind community. We view it all as a comprehensive approach for the disability community.

Disability Scoop: During the campaign there was an emphasis on fully funding IDEA. Is that something that the administration is still committed to, especially considering the current economic times?

Kareem Dale: The administration is still committed to funding and enforcement of IDEA.

Disability Scoop: What about fully funding?

Kareem Dale: I think that once the budget comes out and we will certainly be looking at all of the options related to funding. The president has released some of the top line budget issues but we haven’t released all of our budget issues so I would say stay tuned. I think people will see what our funding plan is for IDEA and all of the other important funding issues that relate to people with disabilities.

Disability Scoop: Right now there are a huge number of people on waiting lists across the country for Medicaid waiver services. People qualify for services, but the tap has just run dry. Is the current system for dispersing these funds effective?

Kareem Dale: Well, I think that all of our systems have to be examined. What the president has said is that every facet of government needs to be re-looked at and re-analyzed and determine where is there waste, where are there inefficiencies and figure out how we can best deliver services to all Americans and particularly for Americans with disabilities. We’re going to be looking at all of these issues related to delivering of services and efficiencies in the government, where there are not efficiencies, whether it’s in Medicare, Medicaid, whether it’s in Social Security and there are going to be changes to those if it’s warranted.

Disability Scoop: Is the Medicaid waiver something that has been looked at?

Kareem Dale: I don’t know whether it’s been looked at, you mean in the first two months, I don’t know.

Disability Scoop: Is that something that you feel is a priority?

Kareem Dale: I think that all of the federal government systems whether inefficiencies need to be explored and taken a look at if it’s appropriate.

Disability Scoop: Last month the Department of Labor began releasing employment data on people with disabilities. The unemployment numbers for this population are quite extraordinary. What can be done to reverse this trend?

Kareem Dale: I think there are a lot of things that we’re going to be looking at. Honestly the president is still putting together a comprehensive team related to his administration across the federal government. There’s a lot that can be done but I think that some of the things that can be done is a change of perception of hiring people with disabilities. I think that the president at least in the first few months has started to demonstrate that folks with disabilities should be and can be hired. Just by appointing three folks to deal with disability issues at the White House, I think he set a personal example. You start with an example and then others will follow.

There are many more things that can be done in terms of changing perception. There’s an education component too in terms of educating companies and corporations about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities in terms of diversity, in terms of some of the business credits and some of the other benefits that are out there for people with disabilities. But it’s got to be an overall comprehensive effort across the government and I think there are going to be many good things to come from this administration for employment of people with disabilities. We’re looking forward to working on it.

Disability Scoop:
There’s a lot of talk of federal dollars going toward research related to disabilities, but obviously people currently living with disabilities have day-to-day needs. Should money from the federal government be concentrated on research or the current needs of people living with disabilities? What’s the balance there?

Kareem Dale: There are lots of needs. There’s certainly a need for research and looking at particular issues and investigating what’s working and what’s not working. There’s certainly a need for day-to-day services for people to get jobs, to have health care on a day-to-day basis, to be able to put food on the table, send their kids to school. There are needs in all sorts of those areas and we have to explore what the appropriate balance is. But there’s certainly a need for research. I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a need for research. You look at the president signing the stem cell (bill) to open up federal dollars, federal funding for stem cell research. There’s a need for that type of research and other types of research. There’s also a need for day-to-day services when you look at for example the president putting an emphasis on health care. That’s a day-to-day need that people need good, affordable, quality affordable health coverage.

Disability Scoop: Going forward in the next couple of months what’s top on your agenda?

Kareem Dale: Probably right there at the top is the overall integration and inclusion of people with disabilities into the administration and what we’re doing because that’s kind of where it all starts from is making sure that folks with disabilities are included into the administration’s efforts and there are a lot of other people who play key roles in that. It’s not just me. It’s far from just me. It’s more of a team. As more of the (federal) agency folks get put into place by the president, I think that effort will blossom and continue to expand, but that’s a big effort. And then I think not much more different from the president’s overall agenda for the whole country. We are a part of the country and need to be included in the country so health care is a critical issue for people with disabilities. That’s right at the top of my list and the top of other folks’ lists who work on disability issues. Education is a huge issue, something that we really have to focus on and then employment, making sure folks have jobs and improving the employment rate, which is not different than anything the president is talking about in the overall plan for the country.

Disability Scoop: Is there anything else that you would like people to know?

Kareem Dale: I think in the disability community — from being a person with a disability and from working on the campaign and the transition — I think there is a tendency for people to believe that the glass is half empty and believe that the president or whatever government official is not going to do what they said they were going to do. I think in the first couple of months we’ve seen the president’s commitment to work hard on disability issues. It’s always hard to accomplish every single solitary thing by the letter that you say you’re going to accomplish. But I think in the first two months we’ve accomplished an extraordinary amount and we’re continuing to work hard. So I would just encourage the disability community, as hard as it is sometimes, to be patient with us and recognize the great accomplishments of the first two months and just look forward to other things to come down the road.