Washington, Jan. 23 – In two separate town halls last week, Gov. Chris Christie addressed several issues of importance for the disability community, including drug addiction and incarceration, accessibility at the upcoming caucuses and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, specifically autism.
When Christie was asked about the high amount of incarceration rates in America, he stressed the importance of treating drug addiction as a disease like cancer or diabetes.
“It’s a disease, and we need to give people the tools they need to deal with their disease,” he said at Brick City Grill in Ames, Iowa on Jan. 16. “If you’re a victim of disease, we’re not going to throw you in jail. When we release them from prison, they’ll actually have a chance and the tools necessary to deal with their disease and be a productive member of society again.”
The New Jersey governor also used simple math as one reason to not incarcerate drug addicts.
“In New Jersey, it cost me $49,000 thousand dollars a year to incarcerate someone. It cost me $24,000 to give them a year of in-patient drug treatment … It costs you more to incarcerate these people who are not violent and not dealers by two to one.”
Christie said there should always be a prison cell for dealers and those who are violence offenders, but addicts who have a disease need treatment, which Christie says then enables them to re-enter the workforce and become taxpayers again. Therefore, as president, Christie said he would have a drug court in every federal district court in America “that takes these folks and diverts them away from prison and on to treatment.”
In New Jersey, every police unit has narcan, an opiate antidote to help address the heroine epidemic across the country. Christie touted that in 2015, New Jersey’s drug overdose deaths went down for the first time in four years.
“This is saving lives. It’s preserving families. And it’s giving hope. As president, that’s exactly what I would say behind the seal of the president of the United States to lower the stigma to let this come out from the shadows and let people seek treatment and not feel ashamed to seek treatment.
When asked about some of the Iowa caucus sites for both Republicans and Democrats that may not be accessible for Iowans with disabilities, a man in attendance interrupted, saying that all the locations in Story County, which includes the city of Ames, are accessible. However, the same is not true throughout the entire state.
The caucuses are organized by the state’s political parties and are not run like typical elections. That means many of the rules and procedures in place to ensure access in a traditional election may not apply. While many of the caucuses are held in schools and government community centers, which are accessible according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), several are held in churches and private homes that often are not accessible. In addition, people in wheelchairs and others with limited mobility need direct, snow-shoveled access from the parking lot to the front door, something that is not mandated.
Christie said that all Americans with the right to vote should “have the opportunity to freely and fairly vote.” For those who cannot access their caucus locations, the governor said, “we need to find ways to overcome that.”
“No one based upon a disability should be prevented from voting if they want to exercise their franchise,” the presidential hopeful said. “If you can’t go to that [assigned caucus] place, they should work on another ability for you to be able to access, for you to be able to participate, either by moving the location or by giving you an opportunity by remote access to be able to participate and be able to cast your vote.”
Christie suggested using things like Skype and Facetime.
When a man in the crowd said, “It’s the Democratic caucuses that are in private homes,” Christie joked. “Then I don’t really give a darn about those.”
While Republican caucus locations may not be held in any private homes like a few of the Democratic caucuses are, both parties are holding caucuses in churches. Religious institutions were exempt by the ADA and may not be accessible for all.
“I would love everybody who wants to vote have a chance to vote,” Christie concluded. “That’s an American principle, a bedrock principle of our country. If you’re a citizen, you have a right to vote. And I want you to vote. Whether you vote for me or not, by the way.”
The next day in Le Mars, Iowa, Sam Wessels, a 15-year-old boy with autism, asked the governor about the low employment rates for adults with autism. Christie answered by discussing how New Jersey is an Employment First state, going into more detail than the statements he made in New Hampshire in December.
“Everything we do in terms of our program is geared toward getting people prepared to work in jobs that are available and jobs that help them reach their full potential,” the governor said at Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum on Jan. 17. “We have to get out of the mindset that folks who are on the Autism spectrum can’t work. They absolutely can work. There are lots of jobs out there that they can do and do very well and feel fulfilled by doing everyday.”
“By making ourselves a Work First state, we have changed the way our Human Services, Health Department and our Department of Education deals with this issue, to put our resources behind trying to make sure that younger people and older folks are prepared as they go through the school-age years and as they age out as that part of the system to be able to be ready for employment and have our Department of Labor work with employers to educate them about what the capabilities and potential is of folks who are somewhere on the Autism spectrum,” Christie added.