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Tom Zirpoli: Experiences help shape our positions

As someone who has worked with individuals with disabilities for most of my professional life, I have observed that people working with or supporting this population frequently have a relative with a disability.

I could name a dozen conservatives from either political party who would never vote for a social program with the exception of supporting the disabled. When I ask them about this exception, they talk about their family experience with a child or sibling with a disability, and how this experience has enlightened and sensitized them to the critical need.

In most issues in life, experience is the key to your position on that issue. For example, I am a supporter of unions, even with all of their faults, because it was a union that represented my mother over 40 years ago in court against a national food store chain that prohibited the promotion of females to the position of store manager.

During the court case, the national chain changed its policy. Today, when I see a female manager at a food store, I think of my mom and the union that fought for her rights. Perhaps unions aren't needed anymore, but in looking at how many workers are treated these days, I doubt that this is the case.

Frank Bruni wrote a column in The New York Times recently about Paul Singer, a 67-year-old hedge fund manager in New York who has raised millions of dollars for former Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. And while Romney believes that the government should limit marriage to the union of one man and one woman, Singer supports same-sex marriage laws. In fact, Singer has been one of the largest financial supporters for the passage of same-sex marriage laws in New York, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

According to Bruni, Singer has "provided nearly $10 million of his own money to gay-rights initiatives" and is "providing $1 million to start a new super PAC with several Republican compatriots. Named American Unity PAC, its sole mission will be to encourage Republican candidates to support same-sex marriage, in part by helping them to feel financially shielded from any blowback from well-funded groups that oppose it."

So why does this conservative Republican support gay rights and same-sex marriage? Singer has a gay son who married his partner in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004. Would Singer be pouring his wealth into this fight if he did not have a gay son? I do not know. However, I suspect his personal experience with his son gave him a different perspective on the issue than he would have had without his son.

Singer isn't the first high-profile Republican to come out in support of gay rights. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian and he also supports gay rights. When Cheney's daughter was married recently to her long-term partner, Cheney issued the following statement: "Mary and Heather have been in a committed relationship for many years, and we are delighted that they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized."

Our values are shaped by our life's experiences. If you've never been unemployed, you may believe that the unemployed are lazy and not trying hard enough to find a job. If you've never been homeless, you may believe that most people are just looking for a handout. And if you never had a child with a severe disability, you may wonder why these families need government assistance.

Sometimes, it takes a personal experience to enlighten a person to a social issue. At that point, "those people" become "my family." And that makes all the difference.

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