"A Cause for Alarm"
by Frank Bowe

March 27, 2003

I am writing this because I worry that many advocates have
not yet recognized just how dire are the current prospects
for disability rights and services in Washington. 

Let me first share with you my overall sense of the current
climate, then take up different pieces of legislation one-
by-one.  There are many issues in addition to those I will
mention here.  For reasons of space, I will not discuss
bills that we found hard to pass in previous Congresses
(e.g., MiCASSA) and those that I expect to come up in the
next session of the 108th Congress (e.g., the Assistive
Technology Act).

It should be understood from the outset that these are
personal reflections.  They do not necessarily represent
the views of the American Association of People with
Disabilities.

THE CLIMATE

Almost every conversation or e-mail that I have with Hill
staffers in which I suggest this or that possible step
forward in disability rights and services is met with the
rejoinder:  "This sounds like it will cost money.  I can't
encourage you to pursue it now."  People are telling me
this for a basic reason having nothing to do with
disability rights and services.  Here is the reason:

The Federal Government entered 2003 with a very large
deficit.  In late March, the President requested $75
billion to help finance the war in Iraq.  This is very
likely to be granted, at least in large part.  However, he
also requested $726 billion over 10 years for tax cuts. 
The House voted to approve his tax-cut request on March 21. 
The Senate a few days later cut the request to $350
billion.  A contentious House-Senate conference looms. Even
if the Senate mark is adopted (by no means a sure thing)
the combination of tax cuts and war spending will severely
limit the ability of Congress to increase funding for most
other things.

Readers will disagree about priorities.  Some, I'm sure,
will favor the accelerated tax cuts proposed by the
President.  Others will oppose those.  Whatever your views,
I hope you recognize the implications for disability rights
and services.

PROGRAM-BY-PROGRAM IMPLICATIONS

1. REHABILITATION

In the House, a subcommittee of the Education and the
Workforce Committee has adopted a bill - HR 1261, the
Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act.  This is a
bill to amend and extend the Workforce Investment Act
(which includes the Rehabilitation Act).  As marked up in
subcommittee, this bill does not provide the significant
increases in authorizations for appropriations that are
urgently needed by the State-Federal rehabilitation
program.  Consumers coast to coast have complained bitterly
for years that their VR agencies are not providing the
services they need in order to become employed in suitable
occupations.  This long-standing tension between consumers
and providers has been exacerbated in the past few years
because state VR agency offices were re-located so as to be
adjacent to other state job training agencies.  The One
Stop Career Centers that these co-located agencies comprise
are seriously deficient, in many states and metropolitan
areas, in three areas of accessibility:  physical
accessibility, program accessibility, and communication
accessibility.  HR 1261 does nothing to address those
concerns.

The bill would also eliminate authorizations of
appropriations for using WIA money to offer transition to
work services for kids who are still in high school.  
Funds would only be available for kids who are already out
of school (called, in the bill, "at risk" kids). 

Some of us, myself included, had real hopes, as recently as
a few months ago, that we could take some positive steps
toward returning VR to its "glory days" of being able to
provide real help to large numbers of individuals with
disabilities.  In particular, knowing that most states are
in fiscal distress, I had hoped that Congress would see the
Rehabilitation Act - which gives states about 75% of what
they spend rehabilitating people with disabilities - as a
way to provide assistance to the states for VR service
delivery.  I also had hoped that Congress would view the
Rehabilitation Act as one of several key ways to address
the nation's workforce needs - because millions of
Americans with disabilities could become valued workers. 
Finally, knowing that Supplemental Security Income and
Medicaid were of very rapidly growing concern both in
Washington and in the states, I had hoped that Congress
would see the Rehabilitation Act as part of the solution to
escalating entitlement spending.  Advocates around the
country need to quickly and vocally press these arguments
if we are to realize any of these hopes.

2. SPECIAL EDUCATION

Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), the nation's landmark special
education law, are just beginning.  I am pleased to see
that both the House and the Senate plan to continue the
efforts of recent Congresses to authorize more funds for
IDEA Part B.  Significant progress has been made over the
past several years in providing more federal resources for
elementary and secondary schools to help them to meet their
responsibilities.  However, authorizations are not
appropriations.  I am deeply concerned that authorizations
contained in the reauthorization bills now beginning to
move on the Hill will not be met, later this year, by
appropriations for those full amounts.

3. TEMPORARY ASSISTANCE FOR NEEDY FAMILIES (TANF)

The TANF  programTANF program, which replaced traditional
welfare, allows states to exempt some 15% to 20% of welfare
recipients from the certain (or: specific) work
requirements.  In general, states have used that authority
to exempt recipients who (a) are themselves people with
disabilities and/or (b) have children who have
disabilities. As a result, the people who remain on TANF
today are, to a large extent (the proportion I've seen is
44%) either themselves persons with disabilities or the
mothers of children with disabilities.  TANF expires in
June.

In the House, the active bill to reauthorize TANF is HR 4. 
It This has passed the House.  It and actually REDUCES
funding for education and training of welfare recipients
(inevitably meaning a reduction in reasonable
accommodations) plus it increases certain work requirements
to 40 hours/week.  In the Senate, S 5 is pending.  It is
similarly restrictive.  Disability advocates need to be
highly vocal between now and June if we are to secure the
accommodations and job training that TANF recipients need
to move into the workforce.

4. HOUSING

Wherever I go, people with disabilities tell me that
finding accessible and affordable housing is their most
poignant priority.  Perhaps 1% of the country's housing
stocksupply is physically accessible, and many of those
units are either unaffordable or nearly so.  The U. S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development, under the
Fiscal Federal Year (FFY) 2003 appropriation, will be able
to finance fewer units of disability accessible public
housing than it did last year.  The Section 8 Rental
Assistance for Persons with Disabilities program, which
offers vouchers to help individuals who cannot get rent
support in what are now "senior-only" programs, was zeroed
out in the FFY 2003 budget.  Yet again, advocates need to
articulate the depth and scope of the crisis in affordable
and accessible housing.

5. DISABILITY RIGHTS

This next item may strike some readers as "inside-the-
Beltway."  I can't avoid it .it.  When I went to Washington
in 1976 to become the first chief executive officer of the
American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), I
discovered that the Office for Civil Rights in the
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had thousands
of civil-rights complaints - in boxes, unopened,
uninvestigated, unresolved.  I am not saying that the same
horror exists today in the Departments of Justice,
Education, Housing and Urban Development, etc.  I do know,
however, that it costs money to enforce civil rights.  It
also costs money to educate employers, companies, and
individuals about disability rights.  In the current
climate, I fear that we will not see vigorous disability
civil rights implementation and enforcement. 

Much disability discrimination is fairly subtle in nature. 
It can be disguised by its perpetrators.  To illustrate,
let me share some off-the-record conversations I have had
with administrators at colleges around the country.  State
colleges and universities, and especially community
colleges, that once actively recruited students with
disabilities and were indeed proud of their disability
support services and programs are admitting, quietly, that
they have scaled back on such recruitment.  I have yet to
hear anyone actually admit that they are rejecting
applications on the grounds of disability.  But as a
university professor, I know that admission decisions are
based upon many factors and that such rejections could be
disguised.  It may be that I'm seeing what I am because I'm
deaf and the interpreters for deaf students are much larger
cost items than are accommodations for students with many
other disabilities.  Still, what I see troubles me.  It is
an uncomfortable reminder of the initial reactions of the
higher-education communities when section 504 first took
effect in 1977:  "We'll be happy to comply, as long as
Washington pays the cost." 

LAST WORDS

It is still early in the year (late March) as I write this. 
If advocates from coast to coast step up now, we can still
turn 2003 into a good year, even a very good one.

Americans with disabilities have much more political power
than they have yet demonstrated.  We are, after all, the
largest minority group in the nation. 

WHAT NEEDS DOING?

First, decide what matters to you.  I cannot, no one else
should, make those decisions for you. 

Second, express your views.  You can write letters to the
editor of local newspapers, call in to talk radio shows,
send e-mails and faxes to organizations to which you
belong, and of course express your views directly to the
elected representatives of your state and Congressional
district.

Third, think long-term.  The 2004 presidential election
season is less than a year away.  Next year, too, one-third
of the Senate and all of the House seats will be up for
election.  Let us put our issues on the table -- and make
them issues that candidates for office may ignore only at
their peril.

As Justin always used to say:  "Lead on!"

Frank Bowe
serfgb@Mail1.Hofstra.edu

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