Disabled people from across the nation will rally on May 26 in front of the U.S. Dept. of Education on Maryland Ave. in Washington to protest cutbacks and other changes at the Rehabilitation Services Administration that they say threaten the well-being of disabled people nationwide.
The National Federation of the Blind, which is organizing the protest, says the Department plans to close ten regional RSA offices, eliminate nearly half the agency's personnel, downgrade the position of commissioner of the RSA and provide vocational rehabilitation funds to states through "block grants" which they say will allow states to provide fewer or wildly varying services.
The administration's planned changes "significantly weaken our nation's commitment" to help disabled people find jobs, said Marc Maurer, president of the NFB. "The blind and disabled face a disheartening unemployment rate of over 70 percent, yet the Department of Education wants to dismantle the single most effective program for preparing the blind to enter the workforce."
Former RSA Commissioner Joanne Wilson, who was one of the highest- ranking disabled persons in the current Bush administration until she resigned in frustration several months ago, plans to attend the rally.
A news item on the New Mobility website notes that Wilson has said the Bush Administration "wants governors to be allowed to merge RSA programs with other job placement programs, which would mean less money and staff dedicated to working specifically with disabled people. Also, Wilson says RSA staffing is being cut in half and the authority of the commissioner is being watered down.
"Proponents of RSA services being combined with general vocational programs say these proposals will make the program more flexible and won't affect vocational services for disabled jobseekers. But opponents say that's not possible. 'The way you rehabilitate a person with a severe disability is very different than the way you help a dislocated worker return to the workforce,' said Fredric K. Schroeder, RSA commissioner during the Clinton Administration." (READ NEW MOBILITY ARTICLE.)
Wilson told Fox News, "They knew that I was an advocate for people with disabilities and an advocate for dollars for people with disabilities" when she was named Commissioner, and added that "when they knew I wasn't going to follow, they just cut me off. It was all done above me." Wilson says she believes that the moves being made the the Administration show that the RSA program "is being devalued" -- and, she added, the believed it would "be ultimately destroyed."
"I cannot stand by while the Bush Administration tries to tear down a system that has helped so many blind and disabled people find employment," said Wilson. "Just look at me. Thanks to good vocational rehabilitation when I was young, I have been employed and paying taxes for forty years. Isn't this the outcome we want for all our blind and disabled citizens?"
Wilson's resignation and subsequent protest against Administration policies concerning the rehab agency are eerily reminiscent of Justin Dart, Jr.s resignation as head of that department in 1987. Dart, too, felt he had been allowed little real power and complained that decisions were made without his input. He ultimately came to believe that he could make little progress against an entrenched bureaucracy full of "disunity and hostility."
In a "statement of conscience" to Congress in November, 1987, Dart complained of the "vast, inflexible federal
system which ... still contains a significant
proportion of individuals who have not yet overcome obsolete,
paternalistic attitudes about disability."
"There is a resistance to any sharing of their centralized
authority with people with disabilities, their families, advocates and
professional service providers, in or out of the federal service," he told Congress, adding that disabled people were granted merely "rubber stamp figurehead representation" in RSA. (Read Dart's Statement of Conscience.)
It seems very little has changed in the ensuing 18 years with a little-regarded public agency that neither the media nor the public knows much about or pays much attention to.
Four former RSA commissioners have now written to Congress about the Administration's latest move, urging the House and Senate to oppose the Dept.'s plan "...to downgrade and marginalize programs for
people with disabilities." The four, who served under presidents George
W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, plan to speak at the rally. (Read letter.)
The Federation now says that the administration "has laid out a plan that would close all of the RSA regional offices responsible for assisting states with the implementation of rehabilitation programs; reduce the RSA staff by approximately 50 percent, with a disproportionate effect falling on people with disabilities employed by RSA; offer states the option of receiving federal vocational rehabilitation funds as part of a consolidated block grant under the Workforce Investment Act; and eliminate the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired as part of a reorganization of the RSA central office."
The group also says the Department "wants to downgrade the position of commissioner of the RSA," which is currently a presidential appointment. This is the position that Wilson and Dart both held.
"The proposed elimination of the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired is particularly troubling for the National Federation of the Blind," NFB's Maurer said. "History has shown that the blind have unique needs that are best met by separate agencies and services. We need experienced and knowledgeable people administering federal programs for the blind."
Says Kevan Worley, president of the National Association of Blind Merchants, "They're trying to balance the budget on the backs of disabled people, and that's going to destroy services that have been critical in empowering and employing us."
The rally is slated to start at 10:30 a.m., to run to 1:30 p.m. Preliminaries begin 9:00 a.m behind the Dept. at the Holiday Inn Capitol, 550 C St. SW.
Posted May 25, 2005.
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