A Promising Start for Bush's Disability Agenda

His New Freedom Initiative is an excellent proposal. Now he needs to back it up with some serious money

By John M. Williams

On Feb. 1, George W. Bush did something not seen at the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt was Chief Executive. The new President sat at a special, 37-inch-high podium designed for wheelchair users. That adaptation put him at eye level with Steve Tingus, director of Resource Development for California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, and Alan Reich, president of the National Organization for Disability. Both men, like Roosevelt, use wheelchairs.

With that one gesture, President Bush told me a lot about his commitment to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark law signed by his father in 1990. In the East Room of the White House, Bush -- in only the second week of his term -- pledged that he would ask Congress to approve his so-called New Freedom Initiatives, which he unveiled on June 15, 2000, in Portland, Maine. (See BW Online, 6/21/00, "Bush Offers a 'New Republican' Message for the Disabled"). "These proposals will help ensure that all Americans with disabilities have the tools to use their skills and make more of their own choices," the self-styled compassionate conservative declared.


  Now comes the true test of Bush's resolve to be a different kind of Republican. He must put more money and resources behind his initiative, and he will have to push Congress to follow through. The New Freedom proposals wouldn't be the first well-intentioned bill sent to Congress by a President that somehow lost its way on Capitol Hill. Politicians love to announce grand designs, only to watch them wither as lawmakers clash over details. Look at health-care reform. Look at campaign-finance reform.

But something has changed since the campaign, and it bodes well for Bush's plan: The response from the disability community has been enthusiastic and optimistic. There was open skepticism in some quarters before the election about Bush's commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities. Most groups viewed his proposals as lip service: He was trying to one-up Vice-President Al Gore, a longtime stalwart on disability issues, or so the talk went.

Not anymore. Andy Imparato, president and CEO of the Washington (D.C.)-based American Association for Persons with Disabilities, now says: "The fact that President Bush is doing this action so early in his Administration shows how important this effort is to him. This is a great start." Justin Dart, an advocate in the disability community who also served in Ronald Reagan's so-called "kitchen Cabinet," told me: "The President will get the support of the disability community."


  The program would commit federal dollars to more research for developing assistive technology, provide low-interest loans so people with disabilities can buy assistive-technology products, mandate new accommodations for public transportation, buildings, and places of worship. It would also amend the Section 8 rental-voucher program, administered by the Housing & Urban Development Dept., to permit people with disabilities to use up to a year's worth of vouchers to finance the down payment on a house.

The estimated price tag for this effort is $1.03 billion. Spread out over five years, that's about $200 million annually. While I applaud the effort, the amount pales in comparison beside the $150 billion that the federal and state governments spend every year to keep millions of people with disabilities as dependents and wards of the state. The federal government is now looking at a surplus in excess of $4 trillion.

One billion dollars over five years? Come on! Let's put some real money into this effort. President Bush should strike while the iron is hot -- earmarking $3 billion to $5 billion annually over the next five years. He could finance the program by not proceeding with some of his proposed tax cuts. And the financial commitment could help literally hundreds of thousands of disabled people find jobs and become tax-paying citizens.


  The President will also ask Congress for additional funding for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That law says Congress should supply at least 40% of the funds required annually by states to provide mainstream programs and special education for school children with disabilities. The current funding is 13%. Governors have been pushing Congress to meet its financial obligations. (See BW Online, 1/24/00, "One-on-One with Jesse Ventura"). The President should meet the 40% goal -- and then some. Why not a goal of 50%?

Sizing up the proposal, Paul Marchand, executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens, says: "When you look at the substantives of the initiatives, there is nothing you can argue with. This is all stuff that is central to the disability agenda."

On Capitol Hill, there is strong bi-partisan support for the initiatives. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) says: "This is a good beginning, and we will proceed in incremental steps." Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) declares: "Both sides of the aisle will support the program. I look forward to working with the Administration on it." Representative Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who uses a wheelchair, says: "I like what I heard. I know the House will support the principles of the program."


  Feb. 1 would have been an even better day had the President signed executive orders directing federal agencies to swiftly implement the Ticket to Work Act and the 1999 U. S. Supreme Court Olmstead decision, which ruled that states must give people the services they need in their homes and communities, rather than putting them into nursing homes and other institutions. The President promised to sign these two executive orders during the campaign.

Bush has now made it clear that he fully supports the legacy of his father, and he stands strongly behind empowering people to improve their lives. His initiatives are a great beginning. Now comes the hard part.

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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