A new White House report– “New Freedom Initiative: The 2004 Progress Report” (NFI)–touts President Bush’s progress toward removing barriers to assistive technologies and giving people with disabilities full access to all aspects of American life, including education, housing, jobs, and transportation.

According to the report, the president has:

  • Secured $120 million over three fiscal years (FY 2002 through FY 2004) to promote the development of assistive and universally designed technology and to fund alternative financing programs, such as low-interest, long-term loans to put technology into the hands of more people with disabilities;
  • Created a working group of federal agencies that developed strategies for improving access to assistive technology mobility devices (i.e., wheelchairs and scooters);
  • Established DisabilityInfo.gov, a web portal providing information about the array of federal programs that affect people with disabilities; and
  • Promoted full implementation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that electronic and information technology purchased, maintained, and used by the federal government be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.

Special-education experts are pleased with the concept of NFI, but they say the benefits have yet to reach students and their schools–and many of the government’s programs for students with disabilities remain largely underfunded.

“While we appreciate the effort, let’s not pat ourselves on the back too soon,” said Sue Denny, executive director of student services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

“Quite frankly, we haven’t seen any effect of President Bush’s initiative yet. It has not filtered down to the local level yet,” Denny said. “We’re behind, because the government has never kicked in the funding it promised.”

From education to housing to transportation, NFI is meant to uphold the tenets of the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision in 1999, which says people with disabilities should be given services in the community rather than in institutions.

“NFI is President Bush’s vision for furthering the opportunities for people with disabilities (beyond) what we accomplished in the last 25 to 30 years,” said Troy R. Justesen, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Special Education Office at the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

But more needs to be done, Justesen acknowledged. Education gives persons with disabilities the foundation they need to be independent citizens, he explained, but the nation’s schools still contain barriers that prevent students from succeeding.

“People with disabilities graduate from higher education at a lower rate than any other group of people,” Justesen said. In fact, he added, fewer people with disabilities even make it to the postsecondary level.

Schools can help students succeed by offering assistive technologies such as books on tape, computer-based text readers, sign-language services and telecommunications devices for the hearing impaired, and even “curb cuts”–sloping a sidewalk’s curb to make it accessible to wheelchairs and scooters.

“I can tell you from personal experience, if you don’t have a curb cut, I’m not going into that store or building,” Justesen said.

About 6.8 million children benefit from federal special-education services. “Since taking office, (President Bush) has increased our budget by 75 percent,” Justesen said. Bush also requested another $1 billion increase for IDEA in his 2005 budget.

But special-education experts say funding for programs such as IDEA still falls short–an issue that will take on added significance as Congress works to reauthorize IDEA in the coming months.

“The amount of the increase was just a drop in the bucket compared to what the need is,” Denny said. “If they continue to increase (funding) at that rate, even for the next 30 years, it would not come close to what is needed.”

Beyond the typical per-pupil amount, IDEA promises to pay for 40 percent of the costs of educating children with disabilities. However, even with the recent funding increases, the feds are still contributing only about 17 percent of these costs, Denny said. Consequently, states and local school systems have to absorb 83 percent of the costs of educating children with disabilities instead of the promised 60 percent.

“In terms of the education record of the current administration, the president should get credit for supporting increases in the budget,” said Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Next to administration goals such as cutting taxes, however, NFI’s objectives pale by comparison, Imparato said. “The tax cuts create situations that make it more difficult for IDEA to get more funding,” he explained.

The Family Opportunity Act, a new bill being considered in Congress, might offer a way to supplement the funding needed to educate children with disabilities. The bill would allow families to tap into Medicaid funds to pay for long-term medical services–such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy–to help their kids thrive in school.

Because private health insurance often doesn’t cover this kind of long-term care, many families choose to impoverish themselves so they can qualify for Medicaid, Imparato said.

The Family Opportunity Act “would help middle-class families who have kids in special education, who don’t want to impoverish themselves, get the services they need,” he said. “If you can tap the Medicaid budget, you can fund some of these services that IDEA can’t pay for.”

Compliance, awareness, and will

Besides increasing funding, special-education experts say ED could do more to attain the goals of NFI by enforcing IDEA and educating students and parents of their rights and the resources available to them.

IDEA requires every student with an Individualized Education Program to receive an assistive technology assessment, but not enough people are doing the assessments, and the government is not enforcing this provision, said Richard Jackson, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Special Technology.

Imparato agrees. ED has never enforced IDEA and could more aggressively punish schools that don’t comply with the act, he said.

Educators can do more to let parents and students know about these requirements and what resources are available to them and how to advocate for themselves, he added.

“From my perspective, the best people to do the education and outreach are the special-education teachers and professionals, but they need a good curriculum and somewhat of a mandate to get that done effectively,” Imparato said.

In addition, school boards and policy makers have to shift their thinking and make a commitment to fulfill the goals of NIF and IDEA, Jackson said.

Other NFI accomplishments cited in the White House report:

  • In March 2002, nine federal agencies released a report, called “Delivering on the Promise,” that identified and proposed solutions to 400 barriers found in federal programs. The White House report says “progress is being made” on eliminating many of these barriers, which include requiring applicants to fill out multiple forms for services at several government agencies.
  • Bush has established two commissions that he says will help shape future policies: the Commission on Excellence in Special Education and the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.
  • Last July, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans announced an eight-point plan for getting assistive technologies to the marketplace faster. Also, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has established an awards program to recognize employers who hire people with disabilities.

See these related links:

New Freedom Initiative (NFI):
The 2004 Progress Report

NFI’s Online Resource for Americans with Disabilities

American Association of People with Disabilities

Center for Applied Special Technology