09/21/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Activism for Special Needs

I have always considered myself to be an independent person; I put myself through college without government loans or support and I made my childhood dream of becoming an artist a reality, my skills and resolve as my only means.

As a freelance artist, when work dried up there was no government safety net waiting for me. There was no unemployment for me to collect, no agency to turn to for help. And I was good with this because that's the life I chose.

That is not the life my son leads. When my son, Akian, was diagnosed with Autism, I knew he would need resources that I would not be able to provide him. For there to be any chance that he would lead the full and independent life that we all desire for our children, he would need help from our local and federal governments. Through no fault of his own, my son was going to be dependent on government.

When I first heard Mitt Romney's disdainful remarks about the 47 percent of people who are "who are dependent upon government," a burning flash seared across my mind. Whether he knew it or not, Romney was talking about my son, and people just like him.

In one breath Romney showed that he had no clue, no compassion, no understanding of what it means to be in need. Never in my life have I felt such outrage for a candidate who wanted to be president of our country.

Mitt Romney wants to build battleships and cut government spending. That means that Americans with special needs are going to suffer, for the federal government already shamefully underfunds special education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the mechanism through which Congress funds special education, has never been fully appropriated, and recent legislation to fully fund it has so far been unsuccessful. This has meant that states and local municipalities have had to make up the difference. Often times this will mean cuts, severe cuts, to special education programs.

I saw the effect of these losses personally in 2007 when my hometown, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, slashed nearly half a million dollars from special education. This lead to the loss of staff and important programs and therapies for special needs children, including my son. I refused to let this disaster go unopposed, so I fasted for a week, drinking only water, to bring attention to the cuts. That was the beginning of my activism for special needs children.

I followed up on that by running for the school board the following two years. I focused on the the hypocrisy of the butchering of the budget for children with disabilities while the school board surrendered a million dollar sweet-heart deal to the superintendent (we even paid for gas for his car) and politically connected firms scored no-bid contracts, including a local architecture firm that made more than $850,000 in just one year, even though no new schools had been built in Cherry Hill for decades.

That special education was an easy target for cuts was made clear to me by one of the school board members who told me that "special ed parents don't vote." Whether correct or not, once politicians believe a segment of society will not stand up for itself, that group will become irrelevant in their eyes. That is how victims are made.

Romney's sweeping disparagement of those who need government help reminds me very much of what happened in my town, and how anger over taxes lead to anger targeted against the most vulnerable. At the height of my career, when I made a lot of money (and paid a lot of taxes) I never had ill feelings toward those who were less fortunate. That was simply unfathomable to me. When I complained about government spending it was relegated to corruption where campaign donors received bloated government contracts in return for their electoral favors. That, of course, is Romney's great hypocrisy. While he spits contempt for those who need help, I wonder how many politically connected firms in Massachusetts fed off the public wealth under his rule?

With an ever growing tide of children being diagnosed with disabilities every year, we have a choice to make: Are we a people who, through strength and love, protect the most fragile amongst us, or will we callously cast a generation of children with special needs to an under-nation of hopelessness and loss?

It's not easy for me to accept that my son needs help. If I had so much money that I could ship a boatload of it over seas, I would pay for everything myself. But I can't. Neither can just about every other family who has a special needs child.

I reject Mitt Romney's Bain style of social engineering, where the strong survive and the weak perish. If the government fails special needs children, more and more disabled children are going to be left behind, never reaching their full potential. That's not the America I want to live in -- I hope it is not the America you want to live in either, for it would represent a true and monumental tragedy.


The author with his son, Akian.


For more than 20 years, Stuart Chaifetz has been a freelance artist and activist against animal cruelty. When his son was diagnosed with Autism he became an activist for children with special needs.

In early 2012, Chaifetz sent his son to school with an audio recorder and discovered that his son was being verbally abused by his teaching staff. The video Chaifetz made with the audio has been seen more than 4.6 millions times, and was covered by media outlets nationally and internationally. It opened up the debate about how children with special needs are treated in school and the bullying they suffer from teachers.

The video can be seen here.