When President Carter first announced his intention to propose an "austere" budget for the coming fiscal year, one segment of the American public reacted with a particularly acute sense of foreboding. The country's 36 million disabled citizens knew that the combination of their political powerlessness and the highly publicized price tages associated with their newly granted rights would make them one of the first victims of the budgetary cuts. And that is exactly what appears to be happening. As one disabled woman put it: "Just when it is our turn to get a piece of the pie, people decide we can no longer afford dessert."

Leading the charge has been the National Governors Association (NGA). In a meeting with President Carter and in a letter to Budget Director James T. McIntyre, the NGA proposed a deal: In exchange for the governors' acquiescence on the budget cuts, Carter should authorize cut backs and delays in implementation of section 504, the civil-rights statute for disabled people, and relax the legal requirements of P.L. 95-602, the recently enacted Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services, and Developmental Disabilities Amendments of 1978. In other words, the NGA would not scream too loudly, nor lobby too vigorously, against Carter's budget if the administration would allow the states to defer action on rights and services for disabled people:

Columnist Neal Peirce picked up the theme. In recent columns, he has attacked the cost implications of section 504 while decrying federal strings upon rehabilitation dollars. "President Carter has a golden opportunity to show his mattle of fighting inflation, reducing burdensome regulation, saving energy, and helping out the nation's cities," says Mr. Peirce. The "golden opportunity" he sees is "to cease and desist" with section 504, especially in transportation. In another column, Mr. Peirce blasts Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.) for requiring states to follow federal guidelines on rehabilitation spending.

The arguments advanced by the NGA and Mr. Peirce have a certain surface validity: In a time of tight fiscal constraints, expensive social programs administered on the state level might better be less stringently regulated from Washington. The facts explode the theory, however.Let's examine some of the arguments and the relevant data.

Myth 1: It's too expensive to grant disabled people access to programs and facilities . No one debates the fact that accessibility can be expensive. After all, most of America is blatantly inaccessible to people using wheelchairs, senior citizens and others with mobility problems. Less obvious, but equally pervasive, are barriers to deaf people that prevent them from understanding television and many other forms of communication and obstacles to blind persons that impede them from acquiring information. To remove those barriers will require investments of financial and manpower resources, perhaps several billions of dollars.

But what are the costs of not removing those barriers? Today, fully half of all adult disabled people who are not institutionalized are on some form of public income maintenance, most because they cannot get jobs in inaccessible buildings, training in inaccessible schools, and transportation in inaccessible buses and subways. The cost to society: a staggering $100 billion annually in federal, state, and local income-maintenance and related dependence-oriented expenditures. These costs are rising at a rate far outpacing inflation and the national economic growth rate; the sprial is out of control. Only one measure will halt and then reverse the trend -- getting disabled people off dependence programs and onto payrolls. And that will happen only when barriers are removed.

The fact is that we as a country literally cannot afford not to "have dessert." We must make the investments required to ensure access so that disabled people may obtain the education and vocational training needed to qualify for employment, may secure the transportation need to get to those jobs each weekday, and may compete equally for wellpaying jobs. To do otherwise is to condemn ourselves to ever-mounting entitlement expenditures that do not solve the underlying problem but merely postpone the day when even these measures are unaffordable.

Myth 2: Special services are cheaper and better than access to general services . On the surface, this argument appears to make sense. Rather than design, and where necessary retrofit, the general transportation and other systems and facilities for full accessibility, offer disabled people separate, "individualized," services. The argument is that to provide "dial-a-ride" and "special-education" services is less costly than is making the mainstream system open for use by disabled as well as able-bodied persons -- and that these separate services help disabled people more anyway.

The facts to dispute this contention are readily appreciated. Special services, by their very nature, are continuing, annual, costs; accessibility modifications, by contrast, are fixed, one-time expenses. Further, the opening of a general system to disabled people increases use of the system without raising operating or other costs once the accessibility modifications have been made. Take for example transportation. The labor, fuel, repair, capital and other costs involved in mass transit are constant whether disabled people use it or not; opening the system to disabled people increases revenue through fares without necessitating additional runs. By contrast, dial-a-ride services require special manpower, special vehicles, extra fuel and other additional costs -- without increasing revenue.

All of this is in addition to the central thesis that separate-but-equal violates the basic civil rights of citizens. No other minority in America has been expected to accept partial rights, or delays to some unpredictable future, on the basis of costs. As Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has argued: "Human rights are not conditional. And a commitment to a conditional human right is no commitment at all."

Myth 3: Permitted more flexibility through relaxed regulations, the states will allocate funds in a more effective manner, thus improving services for disabled people . This argument flies in the face of the undeniable reality that throughout the history of this country -- that is, throughout the long period when there were no regulations requiring equality of opportunity and delivery of services for disabled people -- the states manifestly did not protect these rights nor deliver these services to those who most needed them. There is no compelling reason to believe that things will be drastically altered in the near future. There is strong reason to believe, however, that powerful lobby groups will muscle disabled people out of the picture were the regulations to be removed or significantly cut back. Spending on rehabilitation is notably lower, and increases much slower from year to year, in states where the spirit as well as the letter of the federal laws and regulations are not followed, such as Florida and Georgia, than in states where they are. More convincing evidence of the fallacy of this myth is difficult to imagine.

It seems, then, that President Carter does in fact have a "golden opportunity" to help halt inflation, improve services and conserve energy. But it is not the "opportunity" Mr. Peirce and the NGA perceive. Rather, it is to pursue courageously the path the administration selected during the past two years, one of attacking unnecessary barriers to disabled people while at the same time improving job-training and other services.This would be a bit like the Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will eat for the rest of his life." Then the question would no longer be whether the nation can afford to give disabled people a piece of the pie. They could buy their own, thank you very much.