By John Williams Last Feb. 1, with great fanfare President George W. Bush unveiled his New Freedoms Initiative (NFI) program, a comprehensive set of proposals he said would benefit the 54 million Americans with disabilities. Hailed by disability activists as a big step forward, the plan called for the federal government to spend $8.6 billion in 2002 on improving the lives of disabled citizens.
The announcement had a little bit of something for everyone. Bush pledged to augment funding for research and development of new assistive-technology devices. He also pledged support for low-interest loan programs designed to allow disabled individuals and disability-services organizations to purchase expensive specialized equipment. He offered to expand Federal matching funds aimed at helping disabled workers telecommute. Most important of all, he offered to provide additional funding to support special-education programs for the children who need them -- an area in which the federal government has long failed to live up to its promises.
Now that the dust has finally settled, I have had time to pull apart the NFI and give it a hard look. Frankly, I don't like what I see. What sounded great in February looks more like a bunch of warmed-over initiatives. Here's a quick tour of the wreckage.
TRANSPORTATION BLOCKAGES. First, of the $8.6 billion promised for NFI, a full $8.4 billion will go to special education. Sounds good -- except education programs passed by Congress include $1.6 billion more than what the President asked for. Beginning in 1996, Congress raised the money for special education from $2.3 billion to $9 billion in FY 2002. That would appear to show that the Administration is giving less to special education than the Congress -- hardly evidence of a bold new initiative.
Furthermore, disability activists and some Democrats claim that funding special education beyond FY 2002 at its present level is doubtful because of the whopping Bush tax cut.
Beyond special ed, things get worse. Federal funds that must be matched by the states comprise $180 million of the NFI proposal. That sum includes $100 million in competitive matching grants to promote alternative transportation for people with disabilities through community-based and other local providers. Unfortunately, many states are facing declining tax collections and don't have the money to make the match. Ronna Linroth, former funding and policy specialist for Minnesota's STAR Program, told me: "With revenue reductions, Minnesota lacks the money for many of these matching-grants programs."
How about the $45 million slated to fund 10 new pilot programs to develop innovative transportation options to serve people with disabilities? It's a red herring. The Transportation Dept. has funded numerous pilot programs for accessible transportation over the years. Yet people with disabilities still ride around on small buses. The pilot-program emphasis only puts off the true solution, which would be to make existing public-transportation systems fully accessible.
MEANINGFUL AID. The lack of access to public-transportation services for people with disabilities denies them true integration into society. Separate and unequal access to transportation systems continues a segregationist policy. Let's end this archaic approach. Instead, use the money to pay for comprehensive programs that ensure every citizen has convenient access to transportation.
Other elements of the NFI are simply too small to make a difference. The $5 million targeted to help small businesses comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to encourage small-business owners to hire disabled people is laughable. There are tens of millions of these small businesses, most of which are not in compliance with ADA and have little understanding of it. More funds are needed to make even a small difference there.
President Bush, you can do better than this. If you can cut taxes by well over a trillion dollars, why can't you find another billion or so to spend on truly innovative programs?
You could, for example, fund accessibility measures in city transportation systems, such as upgrading the hopelessly backward New York subway system. You could offer meaningful aid to businesses that want to make themselves accessible to all. And you could give serious R&D funding to scientists studying assistive technologies, many of which -- the transistor, for example -- end up going mainstream and benefiting all of society. The White House didn't get back to me before deadline. But it's not too late for Bush to increase the funding allocated to these initiatives in his fiscal wrangling with Congress. It's a matter of priorities -- and this one should be a no-brainer. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
Got a comment or question? Please visit our Assistive Technology interactive forum