More MS news articles for March 2001

Stooping to New Heights

George W. Bush offers the disability community funding and tells us where we can put it

March 7, 2001
By Kenny Fries

Those of us with disabilities are used to pandering. We are used to being treated as objects of charity. We are used to others speaking for us instead of being asked directly what we need. President George W. Bush, during his first weeks in office, has brought these demeaning reactions to disability onto the national political stage.

A few weeks ago, Bush, surrounded by people in wheelchairs, announced his "New Freedom Initiative." According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bush, in order "to place his commitment to equality for the disabled in sharp relief" planned 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."

Bush's announcement did include his possible support for implementing the Olmstead ruling, 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. Implementing this ruling would support the development integrated, community-based settings for people with disabilities. But the remainder of Bush's announcement -- including 20 million dollars for loans for people with disabilities to buy computers and 10 million dollars for loans to religious organizations to become accessible -- does not even begin to address the economic realities for people with disabilities in the United States.

Despite support by organizations such as the American Association of People with Disabilities and the National Organization of Disability, Bush's "initiative" was derided by activists such as Professor Paul K. Longmore at San Francisco State University. In an email to the disability community, Longmore writes: "New Freedom Initiative. Please. We should not obsequiously praise Bush for announcing a plan he didn't negotiate with the disability community."

A look at Bush's initial actions and policy pronouncements as President upholds Longmore's message. Bush's priorities clearly undermine his professed desire of "tearing down these barriers" to people with disabilities caused by "bureaucracies of dependence."

Take one of Bush's hallmark campaign issues: revamping Social Security by creating individual investment accounts. A New York Times article dated Feb. 7, 2001 states that "People with disabilities would lose income and benefits under the major proposals" of Bush's plan. The same article reports that a "new study by the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, concludes that even under the best of circumstances, Social Security reform proposals would reduce benefits."

The General Accounting Office's report estimates that a worker with average earnings who first receives disability benefits at 45 would have his or her lifetime benefits reduced by between 4 and 18%. In addition, as workers with disabilities typically have shorter employment histories and less time to accumulate money in their accounts.

The Times points out that although people with disabilities account for 17% of Social Security beneficiaries (about 7.5 million of the 45 million recipients) they have received "very little attention in the national debate over the future" of Social Security. The Times also reports that Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, " a major advocate of individual investment accounts," said he had not closely analyzed the effects on people with disabilities.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the chief sponsors of the ADA says: " Social Security is not just about retirement. It's also about protecting people who are wiped out by accident or illness that leaves them disabled. You can plan for retirement, but you can't plan for disability. It can happen to anyone at any time.

"Before we reform Social Security," Senator Harkin warns, "we better stop and think about people with disabilities because they are among the most vulnerable in society."

We now have a President who uses us as symbols of his compassion but whose appointments and policies clearly undermine his professed goals vis a vis people with disabilities. His policies will not assist us. They will wreak havoc on our lives.

About the Author

Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember (Dutton, 1997) and Anesthesia: Poems (The Advocado Press, 1996), as well as the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out (Dutton, 1997). He received the Gregory Kolovakos Award for AIDS Writing for The Healing Notebooks (Open Books, 1990). Desert Walking, a new book of poems, was recently published by The Advocado Press.