ragged edge magazine online



Issue 3

May, 2001


White House liaison for disability issues talks about New Freedom Initiative
from icanonline


photo of pres. George W. Bush

Dubya's New Freedom Initiative:
Just how much "freedom" is that, anyway?

By Marta Russell

"My Administration is committed to tearing down the barriers to equality that face many of the 54 million Americans with disabilities."

Bush giveth, and taketh away . . .

The Commerce Department's proposed budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 cuts the Technology Opportunities Program set up in the Clinton administration by about 65 percent, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal Interactive.

Bush FCC head Michael Powell reportedly likened the digital divide to "a Mercedes divide -- I'd like to have one, I can't afford one."

The budget move signals what the Journal called a " federal retreat from efforts to encourage Internet use among minorities, the poor and people in rural areas ." Not to mention disabled people.

President-Select George W. Bush was unveiling his "New Freedom Initiative." The feel-good "equality" and "freedom" speech was well received, even by liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Disability in many ways has been a bipartisan issue in Washington politics, largely because it is nonthreatening to either party. Both parties have found ways to use it to fit their agendas. The GOP can put the emphasis on empowerment and ending dependency on government entitlements, while the Democrats can focus on civil rights and equal opportunity. Both parties get political mileage out of it. That doesn't mean that the disability movement has made substantial gains, however, especially when it comes to income equality.

In his New Freedom Initiative, Bush says that "new technologies" are essential to disabled people's participation -- new technologies like text telephones for those with hearing impairments; computer monitors with braille displays for those with visual impairments; infrared pointers for people who cannot use their hands; lighter wheelchairs; lighter artificial limbs. "These modern wonders make the world more accessible, yet they are often inaccessible to people who need but cannot afford them," says the President.

But what does the President propose to do to remedy this situation? He is asking Congress to create a new fund -- a federal investment -- that would go directly to rehabilitation centers and businesses to develop and produce such equipment. Here's the clincher: these organizations will get money to pay staff and develop products, while disabled people, who absolutely need them, will have to purchase the equipment by taking out low-interest loans. The developers get the government money outright, the disabled person must find a way to pay for those products..

How does this tear down barriers to equality?

Harris Poll surveys commissioned by the National Organization on Disability in the decade since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law have found persistent gaps between disabled and nondisabled Americans in employment, education, voting and political participation, and in involvement in community, social and religious life.

In 1998 the NOD/ Harris Survey found that fully a third (34 percent) of adults with disabilities live in a household with an annual income of less than $15,000 compared to one in eight (12 percent) of those without disabilities. The gap between disabled and nondisabled persons living in very low-income households has remained virtually constant since 1986. Disabled people are twice as likely not to finish high school (22 versus 9%). A far higher percentage live in households that are below the poverty level (29 versus 10%).

Disabled people suffer from watered-down legislation and middle-of-the-road approaches which satisfy both political parties, don't accomplish much in the way of equality of results and keep us as vulnerable as ever to the capitalist economy. Disabled peoples' advancement has suffered from both the New Democrats' and GOP's unwillingness to address the relationship between "equality" and redistribution.

"For Americans without disabilities, technology makes things easier," says the National Council on Disability, but "for Americans with disabilities, technology makes things possible." In other words, it is necessary from the get-go for a disabled person to have this technology in order to function.

Yet assistive technology is an expense on top of and beyond what a nondisabled person must spend to accomplish similar tasks. To fulfill any notion of "equality" would require taking into account this difference. For equality to exist in this particular situation, the disabled person would have to have the technology to experience any freedom. It is not "optional."

Yet Dubya's New Freedom Initiative would make that freedom contingent upon a person's being able to take out a loan and pay for it themselves.

How likely is it that a disabled person who has been surviving on the average Social Security benefit of $786 a month (for SSDI; for SSI it is an even skimpier $372) will be in the position to risk taking out a loan -- with no guarantee of a job? How can a disabled person without the assistive technology, in fact, even be job-ready? A disabled person needs the technology just to function, whether or not she ever has a job. But without a job, how likely will they be to spring for a loan, low-interest or not?

The New Freedom Initiative does not mention alleviating the poverty of those trying to struggle by on SSDI or SSI below-poverty checks. It does not address the problems disabled people face daily in dealing with Medicaid -- which is cutting back what it will pay for all the time, nor access to an attendant -- a grossly underpaid job that no one wants, nor Medicare -- which has never been designed to provide services of the type disabled persons need. By omitting such realities, the New Freedom Initiative becomes simply more useless talk about "freedom" in a country where people's material needs do not get met.

Marta Russell is author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract.

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