Electric EDGE
Web Edition of The Ragged Edge
March/April 1997
Electric Edge


Subsidized housing's been cut.
Income is down.
Employment figures lie. But


By Bill Bolt

Image: Man in wheelchair with dog; palm tree In last fall's election, you heard President Clinton ask over and over, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The "you" he was talking to were not disabled people. A few noticeably disabled and wheelchair-using people paraded across the stage, then issues dealing with disability disappeared from the campaign. Now that we're into the new Administration, we can ask ourselves: are we disabled people better off than four years ago? The answer is a resounding "Who knows?"

We disabled people are so impotent that we cannot even get anyone to do reliable research to find out what condition we are in. Oh sure, we have agencies like Easter Seals and United Cerebral Palsy declaring at every opportunity that we are better off, but then they're agencies interested in proving that things are going well in the hands of our present self-declared leaders.

The National Organization on Disability, a private organization, is paying the Harris Poll people to prove that we are now only 74% unemployed (instead of the previous 77% ) after six years of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They don't bring up what the statistical margin of error was in this survey. Fact is, the claims were based on a small sampling with such a great margin of error that the margin of error itself -- three percentage points -- could explain the change in figures without any actual change in unemployment whatsoever. The survey wasn't based upon solid employment data; it was done by asking people their opinions over the phone!

Another group infers that the ADA has successfully improved our employment conditions because their survey showed that a great majority of CEOs of giant corporations fully support the ADA, without considering the possibility that these corporate giants like the law because it has had no impact on them. The same group claims that great numbers of corporations are hiring the disabled as never before. Yet when you read the fine print you find that this means that they have hired ļone or more disabled people' since the ADA became law. This may really mean one, and only one, disabled person.

Many of these claims appeared in a four-page "special section" of the Washington Post celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Not a news report subject to the Post's journalistic standards, this was merely an "advertising supplement" -- accompanied by a note from the Post advising us of this, and showing the report to be as reliable as other big advertising supplements that look like news reports which are occasionally placed in major newspapers by Arab sheikdoms. We should ask ourselves who might benefit from such an ad supplement promoting the belief that all is well among the disabled.

Are we better off than four years ago? How can we tell? We can look at what has been changed in government support, and pretty reliably infer that we are worse off. Subsidized housing has been shredded by both the Republicans and Clinton. Without housing subsidies (in which your contribution to your rent is limited to 30% of your SSI), millions of unemployed disabled people will be homeless. The $400 to $625 of SSI we get to live on per month (the amount differs from state to state) will not leave us enough to have a roof over our heads and still have enough money for other needs like eating -- never mind car fare for the paratransit or silly things like going to a movies or buying a TV, a book, or a subscription to the newspaper.

And forget buying a computer or paying for monthly subscription fees to a gateway to the Internet; forget that vaunted "mainstreaming into the Nineties." As one paraplegic friend commented when George Bush was talking about mainstreaming and the ADA, "What they're going to do is take all support away from us, throw us into the middle of the stream and see if we sink."

It is becoming clear that he was right on the mark. In California the state has either frozen or reduced SSI income for six years in a row. For the first four of those six years, every time the feds sent down a cost-of-living increase, California deducted its state contribution by an equal amount, so that the crip ended up getting the same number of dollars despite inflationary creep. During the last two years of those six. things got even worse: California reduced its contribution more than the federal increase, thus actually reducing the dollars that the crip got. Disabled people in California have, in effect, had their incomes reduced to 1988 levels while dealing with 1996 costs, or an effective reduction in income of about twenty percent.

Only this year did the state allow the federal increase to pass through to the SSI recipients. At the same time, of course, federal welfare reform shifted into gear to throw thousands of disabled persons off SSI; to sharply reduce general relief for single males, many of whom were actually disabled; to give only half the cost of living increase recipients those outside large cities; and to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the newly renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Is this being better off than four years ago? Or eight years ago?

Yet have you read this depressing information about disabled people anywhere else? Have you heard our leaders talk about it?

Those claiming to represent us -- whether the self-serving charities or the equally self-glorifying crips who have become ensconced in the halls of political power -- will not tell you that we are marching backward in the most important areas material to our quality of life. Without data and isolated from grassroots contacts, they operate solely on the political loyalties they have embraced from the past. As long as they keep themselves in the dark, they can claim anything their theories tell them to claim, with no reference to reality.

How about that educational escape hatch from poverty for the disabled, the Department of Rehabilitation? Most states' Rehab Departments are funded primarily by the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration. How are they serving us? Who knows? Where is the data?

I tried to get it for you from one of those crips from California who now heads the federal operation. She did not answer directly; her staff assistant told me that they are forbidden by law (the reduction of paperwork law) from collecting data that would tell me such things as how many disabled people are being sent to a four-year university, how many severely disabled clients there are, what the trends are, how much is being spent on them or how many are permanently placed in quality employment following training or education. I was channeled to non-governmental contracting agencies for data. Those agencies sent me a few completely irrelevant pieces of data.

I called a career disabilities official on one of the world's largest public university campuses and was told that he could not tell me whether attendance by disabled people -- or even by severely physically disabled students -- had increased or decreased over the year because, for some reason, collecting such data would be a violation of the rights of students' privacy.

I know they have many more ramps at one California campus because of rapid renovations made after we held a sit-in in the Chancellor's office a few years ago. But are there more disabled students to use them? Since the sit-in they have also installed a generous number of free parking spaces designated for disabled people. But most of the people using the spaces don't appear to be disabled enough to warrant them -- though they are using placards.

The university has grown tremendously during the years of alleged disability rights gains. But have the absolute numbers, or even the percentage, of disabled students in attendance grown? No one seems to know; it's not reported.

A final example of the total untrustworthiness of data on disabled progress: Last year the Census Bureau did a new survey and concluded that 800,000 more disabled people had gotten jobs since their last survey two years earlier. The usual Mary Poppins disabilities charities blared out yet another victory, making sure not to note that the Census had compared apples and oranges: To get the new figures, the Bureau used a significantly different sampling format and questionnaire, declaring it much more accurate than the old one. Any statistical boob knows that if it ain't the same it ain't comparable, no matter how good the new improved model may be. The resulting relative figures are worth zilch.

Are we better off today? The data that might tell you is simply not out there.

My impression is that things for us are getting much worse; I know I have not seen the slightest surge in employment among my severely physically disabled friends.

Lacking hard data, I have to go with what I see. I watch the number of varied visibly disabled persons living on one block of a street in a prosperous Los Angeles suburban city. Being a night person, I check every few weeks after midnight. A year ago, there was only one homeless, visibly disabled person on the block. Now there are three physically disabled people sleeping on or near that street: one women sleeping in her wheelchair, one man sleeping on the cement next to his wheelchair, and a 40-year-old man on crutches -- a bright, easygoing graphics artist who lost his job when hip replacements made it impossible for him to stand all day while working at a high drawing table.

Should I conclude that things are three times worse than a year ago, or four years ago, or eight years ago? Who knows? No one who counts is counting.

Bill Bolt is a severely physically disabled writer whose academic background includes studies in political science, management and Mexican culture; he has worked for over three decades in management and anti-poverty programs. His e-mail address is bbolt@primenet.com

Bill Bolt on the numbers
Celia Henderson on SSI
Sally Rosenthal on an insurance pitfall

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