Palin Promotes Special Needs Agenda

At campaign rallies for Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, they have been a visible presence -- families with children who have disabilities.

You see small heads sticking out of baby slings or tiny faces peering up at the stage from a stroller. Many are children with Down syndrome.

Their parents feel a connection to the Alaska governor by virtue of her fifth child, infant son Trig, born with a disability.

"One of the most wonderful experiences in this campaign has been to see all the families of children with special needs who come out to rallies and events just like this," Palin said today in Pittsburgh. "We have a bond there. We know that children with special needs inspire a special love.

Palin Discusses Disabilities on Pa. Campaign Stop.Play

"You bring your sons and daughters with you, because you are proud of them, as I am of my son," Palin continued. "My little fella sleeps during most of these rallies, even when they get pretty rowdy. He would be amazed to know how many folks come out to see him instead of me."

Palin has often said she will be an advocate for parents of children with special needs if she reaches Washington.

"I pledge to you that, if we're elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House," she said at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis last month.

Today, she finally outlined what that advocacy might look like, using her first major policy address of the campaign to talk about issues facing children with disabilities.

"Too often, even in our own day, children with special needs have been set apart and excluded," Palin said. "Too often, state and federal laws add to their challenges instead of removing barriers and opening new paths of opportunity. Too often, they are made to feel that there is no place for them in the life of our country, that they don't count or have nothing to contribute.

"This attitude is a grave disservice to these beautiful children, to their families, and to our country -- and I will work to change it," Palin said.

"I want to put a new face on this issue," Palin added. "And I pledge to you that if we're elected, you will have a friend and an advocate in the White House."

Proposals Draw Praise and Questions

Advocates for children with disabilities welcomed the speech.

"For the candidate for the vice president of the United States to give a 30-minute speech -- in a swing state -- 10 days before an election is historically very significant from our perspective," said Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Specifically, Palin proposed that parents of children with disabilities should be able to choose what school their children will attend.

"When our public school system fails to render help and equal opportunity, and even parents are prevented, sometimes, from seeking that help and those choices elsewhere, that to me is unacceptable," Palin said. "Under reforms that I will lead as vice president, the parents and caretakers of children with physical or mental disabilities will be able to send that boy or girl to the school of their choice -- public or private."

She also called for federal funding to follow the child, or be "portable," no matter what school is attended.

Perhaps the most significant proposal Palin made would mean spending at least $45 billion more in federal money over five years on special education. Palin called for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed (under a different name) in 1975.

"You're going to see reform and refocus," said Palin, who said cuts in wasteful spending would cover the IDEA funding shortfall. "And we're going to get our federal priorities straight and fulfill our country's commitment to give every child opportunity and hope in life."

That act called for the federal government to pay 40 percent of special education costs for children with disabilities, leaving the remainder to the states. But today, only about 12 percent of special education costs are covered by the federal government, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has also pledged to provide full funding of the IDEA.

Imparato said members of the community of families who have children with disabilities were pleased with the Palin speech, but disappointed that Palin did not talk about health care reform, as well.

"If you talk to parents of children with disabilities, there are two big issues that they care about, [and they] are education and health care," Imparato said. "If you do education right but you don't do health care right, lots of children aren't going to be able to get to school and stay in school because they're not getting the health care and the long-term services that they need."

Obama Camp Disputes Tax Argument

Palin may be concerned about children with disabilities, but she is also turning her personal story into political fire. Today, she accused Obama of planning to increase taxes on trust funds set up for children with disabilities.

"Many families with special needs children or dependent adults, they're concerned about in this race our opponent in this election who plans to raise taxes on precisely these kinds of financial arrangements," Palin warned.

But the Obama campaign rejected that argument as false and misleading.

"It's not true that the Obama tax plan singles out, or penalizes, or in any way is designed to negatively affect families who have children with disabilities," said Obama deputy economic advisor Brian Deese. "It's just absolutely untrue."

The Obama campaign pledges that, no matter what the source of income, only families who make more than $250,000 a year would face higher taxes under an Obama administration.

Independent estate planners contacted by ABC News and presented with the McCain campaign's argument said only extremely large trusts would have to pay increased taxes under Obama's proposals. Deductions claimed by the trust for care of the beneficiary with special needs, they said, would erase most or all income from the trust for tax purposes.

"The tax is only payable by trusts that have income they don't use that's in excess of $8,000 a year," said Harry Margolis, a Boston attorney and founder of the Academy of Special Needs Planners. "The vast majority of special needs trusts don't produce very much income, and whatever income they do produce, they have to use for the beneficiary."

The Obama campaign also pointed to several votes by Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the Senate against funding for special education.

Playing Politics With Special Needs?

To some critics, Palin is playing the worst sort of politics -- using her child's circumstances to reach a key constituency of voters. But Imparato doesn't see it that way.

"Is she exploiting her child with a disability -- as a mother of a new child with a disability? Yes, she probably is," Imparato said. "But she's also exploiting that she's a hockey mom, that she's young and that she's the governor of Alaska. When you're a politician, you employ whatever you have. If this is one of the things that differentiates her from one of the candidates, it's fair game to talk about it as a political issue."

As she often does on the campaign trail, Palin today described the challenge she faced when she found out her son Trig would be born with Down syndrome, but says it has given her a newfound focus to advocate for special needs children.

"When I learned that Trig would have special needs, honestly, I had to prepare my heart," Palin said. "I did a lot of praying for that understanding, and strength, and to see purpose. And what's been confirmed in me is every child has something to contribute to the world if we give them that chance."