AT FIRST BLUSH, Reagan Republicans and the disabled community might appear to be strange political bedfellows. But their philosophical similarities are striking.
Both have accused big government of stifling individual initiative.
Both have advocated that only the truly needy should receive welfare and that others should be given the opportunity to work and to become self-reliant and responsible citizens.
Both are antipaternalistic and denounce the often condescending attitude of government toward those it supposedly serves.
Both are antibureaucratic: Just as business executives decry government regulators who tell them how to run their business, so the disabled are up in arms at professional social workers and do-gooders who tell them how to live their lives.
Moreover, when it comes to translating theory into practice -- and succeeding where government programs have often failed -- the disability movement has an enviable record.
"All over the country people with disabilities are saying the same thing. We don't want to be protected, isolated, 'cared for'," states George Conn, president of the League of Disabled Voters and national legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, who has been nominated to be commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. "What we do want -- and what we have been initiating -- are programs that help us grow more independent, productive and valued in society.
"Programs of the kind we're promoting will earn more money than they cost. For every tax dollar spent, ten dollars are returned in the form of taxes from the earnings of people who have become productive."
A leading spokesman for the new disability movement is Edward Roberts, director of the California State Department of Rehabilitation. Roberts had polio as a teenager and still sleeps in an iron lung. During the day he breathes with the aid of a respirator attached to his motorized reclining wheelchair, which has been described as a sort of earthbound version of an Apollo space capsule.
Much in demand as a public speaker, Roberts likes to tell his audiences: "When I got polio at 14, the doctors told my parents that I was likely to be a vegetable for the rest of my life. I come before you today as an artichoke."
In key respects, Roberts personifies the new disability movement. He was once denied educational funds -- on the ground that he was "nonrehabilitable" -- by the very agency he now heads. Keen, witty and able, he puts to rest stereotypical misgivings concerning the handicapped.
Roberts' emphasis is on what he calls "transition": helping people move from one level of development to the next, and to the ultimate goal of independence and self-reliance. He states, "People with disabilities have taken the lead in calling for a change in the philosophy of our human services system. They are asking for flexibility in programs that respect the differences in people, and a shift in emphasis from dependence to independence."
Some years ago, Roberts helped found the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, Calif. The center is the prototype of more than 100 grass roots organizations operated by disabled persons to provide basic services to disabled people.
One of the center's functions is to find housing for handicapped people, and to assist the landlord and disabled tenant in making any achitectural changes needed for accessibility.
The center also operates a school which trains computer programmers. Established with the technical assistance of International Business Machines Corp., the school has a placement rate of over 94 percent. A majority of its teachers are severely disabled, as are all of its students -- most of whom would once have been considered too disabled to work and so would have been dependent on their families or confined to tax-supported institutions.
Another innovative program initiated by the center is the KIDS project, which brings disabled people with successful and interesting lifestyles into local classrooms. Through KIDS, youngsters and their teachers hear firsthand accounts of how disabled people have "made it" on their own and can question handicapped people about their disability.
One result is the softening of many of the negative attitudes that able-bodied people traditionally have toward disabled people. Thus, children and teachers exposed to the program usually become more accepting of disabled children and more supportive of mainstreaming disabled children in the public school system.
The center operates a wheelchair repair shop renowned among wheelchair users around the country. Elsewhere, minor repairs often take months. To a wheelchair rider who is jobless, or live in an institution or hospital, such a delay may be little more than an inconvience. But if a wheelchair user is to be independent and truly integrated into our society, the "down time" of the wheelchair must be minimized. So the center's repair shop has reduced the time for most repairs to less than 45 minutes. All repairs are completed within one day, and many are made without the rider ever having to leave the wheelchair.
Another handicapped high-level California state official is Mike Vader, director of compliance coordination for the State and Consumer Services Agency. Vader single-handedly developed what may be the nation's most innovative employment program for the disabled. Under his direction, California in the past 18 months has hired more than 1,600 severely handicapped persons.
"The beautiful part is that nobody loses," Vader says. "The taxpayers have been relieved of a sizable burden, and 1,600 human beings are living more satisfying, productive lives."
"And these programs needn't be confined to the handicapped," Vader says. "What we have done can work for other groups in our society with high chronic unemployment."
A significant aspect of Vader's program is that it focuses only on those whose disabilities in the past probably would have precluded gainful employment.
"Traditionally, hire-the-handicapped promotions have resulted in the employment of what we in the movement refer to as the three Hs," says Reese Robrahn, a blind former judge from Kansas who is the director of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. "The three Hs are hangnails, hernias and hemorrhoids. What it means is that employers have been willing to hire persons with temporary and invisible handicaps while ignoring those with severe disabilities who really need the opportunity."
According to Robrahn, "What Vader has done in California, with the help of some innovative managers and a meaningful commitment by the state administration, is to find jobs for what might be called the hard-core disabled."
The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities is composed of groups that were started by disabled people and are run by disabled people in order to implement their own programs. These groups exemplify a philosophy of control and responsibility which has been the inspiration for the extraordinary number of self-help groups that have been formed throughout the country in the last few years. These mutual aid groups are multiplying, to fulfill needs that traditional institutions are not meeting. In 1979, the number of such groups had grown to an estimated 500,000, with a total membership of 15 million people.
"Disabled persons describe most of the governmental services and programs as well meaning but counterproductive," says Judy Heumann, deputy director of Berkeley's Center of Independent Living and a member of the National Council on the Handicapped. "The programs foster dependence, disability and isolation, when they should focus on independence and movement into the mainstream. That's why self-help is the keynote today."
The innovate programs developed by the disabled community utilize people with disabilities are role models and counselors who help one another take control of their own lives -- to work, have a home, raise a family and generally share in the joys and responsibilities of community life.
Heumann adds, "The disabled community includes every race, culture, age, sex and economic class. Membership is open to all and most of us who live our full lifespan will join at some time. A recent Swedish survey found that 60 to 70 percent of all adults will at some point in their lives be a member."
Another example of the disability movement's philosophy is its leadership of the fight to eliminate work disincentives in the Social Security Act. While there will always be disabled persons who have a legitimate need for services to increase their indepenence and take care of basic living functions, our complex Social Security system has certain provisions which have kept many disabled people from working.
Both the public and private disability insurance programs and the public income maintenance programs were designed on the assumption that disabled persons cannot work. Accordingly, if a disabled person earns more than a specified amount, the earner is no longer defined as disabled and loses all benefits.
Such an approach is appropriate for the relatively few disabled people who have no high, continuing medical expenses and who can obtain layoff-secure jobs. But the great mass of affected clients -- especially those with chronic disabilities -- cannot afford to lose the protection of these programs.
Amendments to the Social Security Act in 1980, spearheaded by the disability community, alleviated the problem. The amendments provide more generous allowances for impairment-related work expenses and extend the period during which a working beneficiary can receive medical care.
However, benefits still are cut off as soon as earnings exceed an amount which is well below the poverty level. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that many disabled persons cannot afford the risk of working.
The disability community has good reason to expect support from President Reagan in its effort to eliminate the penalties against disabled people who work. The need to reduce disablility costs is urgent.
According to labor economist Monroe Berkowitz, the bill for disability payments in this country, private and public, rose 250 percent in just seven years. During the same period, Social Security benefits for disabled people rose even more steeply, or about 400 percent.
These considerations prompted Congress to enact the 1980 Social Security amendments. But the disability community believes that more changes are needed in order to induce people to venture off the security of the dependency rolls. Both private and public programs could benefit by following the lead of the Social Security retirement program, which allows beneficiaries to keep half the money they earn over the minimum subsistence amount.
The disability movement has also conducted a successful campaign against government and airline regulations, which, ostensibly in the interest of disabled persons' own "safety," banned them from commerical flights.
Safety is often the last refuge of government officials looking for an excuse not to provide accessibility for disabled persons," explained Ralf Hotchkiss, a leading wheelchair designer who himself uses a wheelchair.
Government officials have made the argument that mentally disabled persons are "safer" in large state asylums. The disabled community, believing that all people, including those with disabilities, have the right to reach their fullest potential, has led the fight to deinstitutionalize mental ill and retarded persons. Large numbers of such persons have left the huge and often remote and inhumane state hospitals to live in family-scale community houses (some fully independent, some highly structured) with the goal of ultimately living in their own homes. The usual estimate is that it costs three times as much to maintain an individual in a state hospital as opposed to living in the community. And that is aside from the obivious fact that many deinstitutionalized persons ultimately become productive workers.
What the disabled have proved in their most enterprising and innovative projects is that a large percentage, of physically and mentally handicapped persons could, if given the opportunity, become wholly self-sufficient. Many others could become partially self-sufficient. The net result, of course, would be more taxpayers and fewer tax users -- the ultimate Reagan objective.