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Disability is not the experience of a minority of Americans. Rather, it is an experience that will touch most Americans at some point during their lives. Today, there are more than 54 million Americans with disabilities, a full 20 percent of the U.S. population. About half of these individuals have a severe disability, affecting their ability to see, hear, walk, or perform other basic functions of life.
Eleven years ago, then-President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the most significant civil rights laws since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, America opened its door to a new age for people with disabilities. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities that are like those provided to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion. Two and a half years ago, amendments to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were enacted, ensuring that the Federal Government would purchase electronic and information technology that is open and accessible to people with disabilities.
However, significant barriers still exist to individuals with disabilities who try to fully participate in American society. People with disabilities want to be employed, educated, and active citizens in the community. Unfortunately, on average, Americans with disabilities have a lower level of educational attainment, and are poorer and more likely to be unemployed than those without disabilities. In today's global new economy, America must be able to draw on the talents and creativity of all its citizens.
On February 1, 2001, the President announced his New Freedom Initiative to help individuals with disabilities by increasing access to assistive technologies, expanding educational opportunities, increasing the ability of individuals with disabilities to integrate into the work force, and promoting increased access into the community.
Assistive and universally designed technologies can dramatically improve the lives of individuals with disabilities, and make it possible for them to engage in productive work and more fully participate in society. The President's Budget will help ensure that Americans with disabilities can access the best technologies of today and that even better technologies will be available in the future.
Investing in Assistive Technology Research and Development: The budget requests $20 million for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs), which are recognized for conducting some of the most innovative assistive technology research in the Nation. These RERCs, housed in universities and nonprofit institutions across the country, also help bring new assistive technologies to market, and provide valuable training opportunities to individuals to become researchers and practitioners of rehabilitation technology. The budget also provides $3 million for the Interagency Committee on Disability Research to better coordinate Federal assistive technology research and development and foster collaborative projects with the private sector.
Promoting Small Business Innovation: While there are nearly 2,500 companies working to bring new assistive technologies to market, many small businesses cannot make the necessary capital investments until they have information concerning the market for a particular technology. To help these businesses bring assistive technologies to market, the budget requests $5 million for a new Assistive Technology Development Fund to help underwrite assistive technology demonstration, testing, validation, and market assessment to meet the special needs of small businesses.
Making Assistive Technology More Affordable: Assistive technology can be expensive—for instance, personal computers configured with assistive technology can cost up to $20,000. Too often, people with disabilities do not have the financial resources to purchase the assistive technology they need. To help make these technologies more readily available, the budget includes $40 million for States to establish or expand low-interest loan programs to help individuals with disabilities purchase assistive technology.
One of the President's first actions was to release his education reform plan to ensure that no child is left behind. Recognizing that a quality education is the key to future success, the budget helps expand educational opportunities for children with disabilities and support early reading instruction for children, including those at risk of being identified as having learning disabilities.
Increasing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Funding: Originally passed by Congress in 1975, IDEA ensures that children with disabilities will have access to a free appropriate public education. The budget provides increased funding for grants to States to help them meet their obligations under the IDEA. In addition, the budget proposes to give States flexibility to redirect funds for school renovation to support special education needs.
Focusing on Reading in Early Grades: Too often, children fall behind because they do not receive proper reading instruction in the crucial early years. To address this problem, the budget provides $900 million to establish the Reading First initiative for States to implement research-based reading programs to teach every child to read by the third grade. The budget also creates a new $75 million early reading program to prepare young children to read in pre-school.
Americans with disabilities should have every freedom to meet their full potential and participate as full members in the economic marketplace. The budget will help eliminate barriers to employment and promote full access and integration into the community.
Expanding Telecommuting Options: The budget provides $20 million for a new Access to Telework Fund, for States to provide low-interest loans to help people with disabilities purchase equipment to telecommute from home. The budget also explicitly makes a company's contributions of computers and Internet access for home use by employees with disabilities a tax-free benefit, which should expand the universe of potential and accessible employment. In addition, the Administration will work to ensure that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not apply to employees working in home offices.
Facilitating ADA Compliance: The budget provides $5 million for the Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide technical assistance to help small businesses comply with the ADA, serve customers with disabilities, and hire more people with disabilities. This funding will also help SBA increase awareness and promote use of the Disabled Access Credit, which provides a 50 percent tax credit on up to $5,000 of eligible expenses annually to help small businesses make their facilities ADA compliant.
Supporting Innovative Transportation Solutions: Transportation can be a particularly difficult barrier to work for individuals with disabilities. The President's Budget supports two new initiatives in the Department of Transportation to expand transportation options for people with disabilities.
The budget provides $45 million to fund pilot programs to promote innovative transportation solutions for people with disabilities. The selected programs will be run by State or local governments in regional, urban, and rural areas. These pilots will be evaluated after three years and if they are successful, the Administration will encourage expansion of these initiatives to other areas.
The budget also provides $100 million in competitive matching grants to promote access to alternative methods of transportation. The funds will aid community-based organizations that seek to integrate Americans with disabilities into the work force. The funds will go towards the purchase and operation of specialty vans, assisting people with down payments or costs associated with accessible vehicles, and extending the use of existing transportation resources.
Implementing the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act: In 1999, Congress passed the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act to reduce barriers and improve incentives for individuals with disabilities to participate in the work force. This law increases vocational rehabilitation and employment service options for Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income disability beneficiaries who want to return to work; extends Medicare coverage for DI beneficiaries who return to work for an additional four and one-half years; and creates a new State option to expand Medicaid eligibility categories for certain people with severe disabilities so they can receive health coverage even if they are not eligible for disability benefits. Through Executive action, the Administration is committed to supporting agencies in the continued swift implementation of this law.
In many other areas, individuals with disabilities are impeded from full participation in American society. Barriers remain, for instance, in homeownership, accessing polling places and private facilities, and community integration. The President is committed to removing these obstacles, and helping individuals with disabilities realize the American dream.
Promoting Accessibility Renovations for ADA-Exempt Organizations: The budget requests $20 million in competitive grants for an Improving Access Initiative, housed within the Community Development Block Grant program. This initiative will help ADA-exempt organizations that have limited resources, including private clubs and religiously affiliated service providers, make their facilities accessible to the disabled.
Improving Accessibility to Voting for Americans with Disabilities: Currently people with disabilities vote at a rate that is 20 percent lower than voters who do not have disabilities. The President recognizes that full integration into society must include access to and participation in the political process, and his Administration will work with Congress to address the barriers to voting for Americans with disabilities.
Encouraging Homeownership for People With Disabilities: The Administration will quickly implement the American Homeownership and Economic Opportunity Act to allow disabled recipients of Section 8 vouchers to use up to a year's worth of assistance in a lump-sum payment to finance the down payment on a home. Reforming Federal rental assistance to give individuals who qualify the opportunity to purchase a home will help recipients build equity and more easily finance other purchases such as a computer or further education.
Implementing the Olmstead Decision: In 1999, the Supreme Court decided in Olmstead v. L.C. that the ADA requires the placement of persons with disabilities in a community-integrated setting whenever possible. The Court concluded that "unjustified isolation" is discrimination based on disability and a violation of the ADA. The Administration believes that community-based care is critically important and will work with the States to swiftly implement the Olmstead decision.
Establishing a National Commission on Mental Health: The President has committed to create a National Commission on Mental Health, which will study and make recommendations for improving America's mental health service delivery system, including making recommendations on the availability and delivery of new treatments and technologies for people with severe mental illness.
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