"New Freedom Initiative"
By Jodi Enda
INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON, D. C. - Eleven years after his father signed the
Americans With Disabilities Act, President Bush today will unveil
a $1 billion proposal to help further remove barriers for disabled
Americans seeking access to work, education and worship.
Bush's "New Freedom Initiative" is intended to help the nation's
54 million disabled people gain access to technology; schools;
the workforce; polling places; and churches, synagogues and
It also will create a National Commission on Mental Health Services
to improve the treatment of mental illness.
To place his commitment to equality for the disabled in sharp relief,
Bush is expected to announce his proposal while standing next to
disabled people whose wheelchairs will rest on a ramp that raises
their heads to a level even with his.
The initiative is Bush's latest attempt to define what he means
when he calls himself a compassionate conservative. While his
proposals often contain traditional conservative underpinnings,
the President has tried to soften them by offering extra help to
people with special needs.
In the last 12 days, Bush has announced proposals to direct education
money to children from low-income families, to provide prescription-
drug benefits to low-income seniors, and to help faith-based and
community groups provide social services.
When Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990,
it was widely heralded as the most extensive civil-rights legislation
in a quarter century because it banned discrimination against disabled
people in employment, public accommodations, transportation and
Now, the younger Bush aims to open the door to fuller participation
in virtually every aspect of society.
"Though progress has been made in the last decade, too many
barriers remain," Bush said in a draft introduction to his proposal.
"Too many Americans with disabilities remain trapped in bureaucracies
of dependence and are denied the tools and access necessary for
"My administration is committed to tearing down these barriers."
The proposal to Congress is divided into four parts: increasing
access to technology, expanding educational opportunities,
integrating disabled people into the workforce, and promoting
access to community life.
Bush would provide states with $20 million in matching funds to
offer low-interest loans for disabled Americans to buy computers
and other equipment they need to work from home. He would
provide $10 million a year in matching funds to help organizations
that are exempt from the earlier Disabilities Act - including places
of worship and civic groups - to increase accessibility.
Bush also is expected to sign an executive order today to implement
a 1999 Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that patients
in state mental hospitals have a right to move to less restrictive
community homes when they and their doctors deem it best.
The order would support integrated, community-based settings
for people with disabilities.
Also, Bush plans to sign executive orders creating the mental-health
commission and directing federal agencies to enforce a law allowing
people with disabilities to maintain health benefits and other social
services when they obtain jobs. Now, they often have to choose
between health coverage and work.
The Bush proposal also would permit low-income people with
disabilities to use one year's worth of rental vouchers from the
Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8
program to finance down payments on homes.
There were indications yesterday that the proposals may gain at
least some bipartisan support.
Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Iowa Democrat who helped sponsor the
earlier disabilities legislation, said in a statement: "I strongly agree
with the goals of the New Freedom Initiative. I have always believed
that the principles of independence and equal opportunity have
nothing to do with which party you're from and everything to do
with being an American."
Advocates for people with disabilities hailed the proposals, saying
they could help close large gaps in access to services and opportunities
that most Americans take for granted.
"We're excited that they're doing this early in the administration,
that he sees this as a high enough priority to roll it out in the first
few weeks," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American
Association of People With Disabilities, a group that pushes for
political and economic empowerment of disabled people.
"The fact that he's doing it, the fact that he's taking it seriously,
placing it at the top of his own agenda, is exhilarating for those
of us with disabilities," said Alan Reich, president of the National
Organization on Disability.
[NOTE: President George W. Bush released his New Freedom
Initiative on Disability. The full text is available here.
CNN news coverage of the event is available here.]
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