Disabled Program Changes Decried

President Bush greeted Joanne Wilson, then commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, at a White House event in 2002. Wilson opposes administration plans to combine job programs for the disabled with those that serve the able-bodied.
President Bush greeted Joanne Wilson, then commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, at a White House event in 2002. Wilson opposes administration plans to combine job programs for the disabled with those that serve the able-bodied. (By Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 25, 2005

The woman who, until recently, led the federal government effort to get the nation's disabled into the workforce is lashing out at the Bush administration, saying it is quietly attempting to "dismantle" programs critical to helping the blind, deaf and otherwise disabled find jobs.

Joanne Wilson, who left her job as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration on March 1, now says she quit in protest of what she said were the administration's largely unnoticed efforts to gut the office's funding and staffing.

"Programs for people with disabilities are being dismantled, and nobody is crying out and saying, 'Look what's happening,' " said Wilson, who, as RSA commissioner, was one of the government's highest-ranking disabled officials.

Wilson said the Department of Education, which has jurisdiction over the office, is pushing to allow governors to combine RSA programs with a number of other job placement programs that serve both the disabled and the able-bodied. The net result of such a move, she said, would be less money and fewer services dedicated to helping those with disabilities. Wilson said the agency is also cutting RSA staffing by about half while pushing to downgrade the authority of the commissioner who runs it.

The agency defended the proposal, saying the consolidation would make the program more efficient and flexible and would not affect the government's vocational services for the disabled.

"Even though you combine it with other programs, it's going to be the responsibility of the states to use it responsibly and to generate the results that they are going to be required to have in order to qualify for the money," said John Hager, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

Hager said the staffing cuts -- expected to slice the RSA's personnel to about 70, from 138 -- are coming at the expense of its regional offices, which the agency has deemed unnecessary thanks, in part, to advances in technology. "This is something most parts of the Department of Education did years ago," he said.

The reorganization, which the administration proposed in its 2006 budget plan, would have to be approved by Congress.

The RSA provides money, technical assistance and oversight to state agencies that, in turn, provide rehabilitative and vocational services for those who are blind, deaf, paralyzed or intellectually disabled. Such services may include training on how to live independently, navigate communities and develop marketable skills.

The program serves about 1.2 million people at an annual cost of about $2.9 billion. Those who enroll in the programs participate for a few months to several years. Hager said that the RSA places about 215,000 each year and that two-thirds of those who enter the program come out with jobs.

Fredric K. Schroeder, who ran the office for much of the Clinton administration and is teaming up with Wilson to draw attention to her criticisms, said the proposed consolidated job program would not be able to provide the same range of the often expensive and extensive services RSA offers.

"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," he said.

Moreover, they said, the disabled would probably get lost in the mix of a combined program because many state agencies are pressured to place as many people in jobs as possible. That would often lead them, Wilson said, to focus on those easiest to place.

Hager, the education official, called those warnings "speculative" and said the administration has proposed increasing the RSA's funding. It has proposed expanding the office's state grant programs by slightly more than 3 percent. The overall RSA budget would remain essentially unchanged, however.

The president of one of the major advocacy groups for the disabled, the American Association of People with Disabilities, said the organization has not taken a position on the proposal. Andrew Imparato said the group is waiting for more details to emerge.

"There's an ongoing dilemma within disability policy," he said. "Do we want separate programs that we can then try to hold accountable? Or do we want to hold the generic programs accountable? Or do we want a little bit of both?"

Wilson, who was named to the post in 2001, is herself the beneficiary of a job placement program designed for the disabled. She became blind as a child and was illiterate for much of her childhood, she said. Wilson entered a program in Iowa at age 19. She went on to become a public school teacher before running the Louisiana Center for the Blind and, later, the RSA. She is now a director at the advocacy group National Federation of the Blind.

"The system invested money in me, and they invested a lot of time in me," Wilson said. " . . . But as a result I've been employed for how many years now? That was when I was 19. I'm now 58. I was employed for 40 years and paid a lot of taxes back into the system with that. I couldn't have gotten that if I had walked into a generic job placement program."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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