The Reagan administration is drafting legislation and policies that critics charge would reduce the access of the handicapped to education and federally financed programs and facilities.
Besides proposing a 30 percent spending cut for handicapped education, the Education Department has taken aim at the 1975 law that provides assistance to states for the education of handicapped children. Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department are drafting new guidelines to cut back enforcement of the federal law the protects the handicapped from discrimination.
The administration has targeted these laws and regulations in its quest to lower the regulatory burden--and related costs--on school boards and government units. It is sure to find support there.
But the proposals already are stirring up groups representing the nation's 36 million disabled persons. And many members of Congress have joined their cause.
Gary L. Jones, deputy undersecretary of education, said in an interview that the administration is considering proposing legislation to drop requirements that schools prepare individual education planning documents for each of the 4 million children served nationwide, and that the children be "mainstreamed" into regular classrooms to the "maximum extent possible."
He emphasized that children's rights would continue to be protected by the federal government. But he said other changes being studied would make it clear that school boards need not extend the school year to meet a handicapped child's needs. They would also ensure that other local agencies share with school boards the cost of "related services"--such as transportation and medical care--required by the law.
The department is also considering allowing school board officials, in some cases, to judge parental appeals of how their children are being educated. Currently, the officials are barred from these proceedings because they generally are not considered to be "impartial."
The department also is drafting changes in the regulations that back up the law, the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1975. But groups representing the handicapped consider the legislative proposals a more serious threat.
At the same time, Justice and OMB are redrafting interagency guidelines to limit federal enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against the handicapped in federally funded programs.
The Justice draft, for instance, would narrow the definition of who is handicapped, make cost a key consideration, and remove requirements that employers provide "equal opportunity" to the handicapped. OMB's proposed changes would go even further. One would measure the cost of opening federal services to the disabled against the "value to society" of the accommodation, according to a leaked draft.
In a statement, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., said, "The OMB version literally destroys all vestiges of civil rights protections hard won by the disabled community over the past five years. The underlying concept . . . is rather simple: We are qualified handicapped persons if providing accommodation to us does not cost too much."
An administration official, however, argued that no final decisions have been made on the guidelines.
Jones of the Education Department contended that the administration's policy deliberations have always put the handicapped child first. But they also have focused on providing flexibility to state and local governments, seeing how the law affects nonhandicapped students, and "making sure the courts don't set education policy."
"We're trying to find a way to do all that is reasonable and appropriate for the handicapped child and still not lose sight of the impact of the law on the nonhandicapped," Jones said.
The issues involved in the debate--the rights of the disabled versus how much government should have to pay to enforce them--are also being heard in other arenas.
For example. the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which a New York school board is challenging a lower court decision on services required under the handicapped education act. The lower court judge said a deaf girl, who already is doing well in school by reading lips, must be supplied with a sign language interpreter in her classes so that she can achieve her maximum potential.
And on Feb. 4, a majority of the House and Senate signed a letter to President Reagan, urging that he support full funding of the education for the handicapped law and oppose substantive changes in the law. It was signed by 285 House members, including 74 Republicans. Fifty-nine senators also signed the letter, 23 of them Republicans.
The letter noted that many of the administrative burdens of the law were the result of state or local interpretations of the statute. It added that the law has proven "cost-effective" because educating handicapped youth can often prevent their being institutionalized at greater cost.