In the contemporary spirit of ruthless full disclosure, I herewith disclose that I am sleeping with a government official. Any day now the Senate will do its clear and pleasant duty, confirming Madeleine Will as assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitation.
Without dwelling indelicately on the erotic life of Washington, let me say that I now know what it is to sleep with the Federal Register. Madame Secretary, a veteran of service with the Maryland Association of Retarded Citizens, falls asleep talking, and wakes up talking, acronyms and numbers. Remember how approvingly Keats spoke about the Grecian urn? That is how Ms. Will speaks about P.L. 94-142 and Section 504.
P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, is to parents of handicapped children what Social Security is to the elderly: their Magna Carta. It establishes a right to an "appropriate" education in the "least restrictive environment." Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requiring that programs receiving federal assistance be accessible to disabled persons) means nothing to most Americans but everything to millions of citizens. They are citizens who have been excluded from fair social participation not because of their handicaps but because of handicapping social attitudes.
Writing in Scientific American about architectural barriers, Gerben DeJong and Raymond Lifchez argue that Section 504 regulations are government power in the service of conservative values--the escape from dependency, the achievement of self-reliance. The most pervasive barriers are attitudinal, and the worst is the belief that disabled persons are helpless and inevitably are drains on public resources.
A conservative research institution here (the Heritage Foundation) has just published the factually preposterous and morally repulsive thought that a "key reason" why academic achievement standards have fallen is that the federal government has "dismantled an academically demanding curriculum" by catering to "special-interest groups" such as the handicapped, and has "favored the disadvantaged pupils at the expense of those who have the highest potential to contribute positively to society."
Leave aside the philistine social analysis: the idea that profound changes in society's educational expectations and achievements are the result of recent Washington decisions rather than of complex and autonomous cultural processes. But note this dangerous doctrine: handicapped persons are among those getting too much public assistance because, by some cost- benefit criterion, they do not have the capacity to make a sufficiently "positive" contribution to society. Note the nasty premise: an individual's enjoyment of rights is conditioned by the individual's social utility.
It is almost demeaning to assure such analysts that equity is economical. Institutionalization of the retarded is almost never necessary and almost always an expensive incarceration of potential taxpayers. And physically handicapped persons are seeking removal of barriers to self-help.
Handicapped citizens are as fully citizens as those of us who are mentally non-handicapped or temporarily able-bodied. They are just beginning to have access to social benefits that other citizens take for granted. When P.L. 94- 142 was passed in 1975, 25 percent of all handicapped children were underserved and another 25 percent had no educational programs at all; they were more excluded from society's basic benefits than black children were in 1954. Now, just eight years later, we are invited to believe that federal largess toward disadvantaged pupils is a threat to America's meritocracy.
The Reagan administration's most serious self-inflicted wound has been its failure to practice creative exceptionalism. It has failed to find an area for action that is an exception to its domestic austerity and deregulation--action that would announce:
Although we conservatives believe government has been irrationally intrusive, we nevertheless know there are persons who cannot help themselves until government helps them. And we know there are conservative values that are not vivified until the federal government affirms them with strong regulations.
Instead, acting in part from unconservative fidelity to ideological abstractions, the Reagan administration aroused the anxiety of an enormous constituency--the handicapped and their friends. It did so with some contemplated "deregulations" involving P.L. 94-142 and Section 504, changes that Congress would never permit.
Even just a generation from now we will, I hope, be mortified by the memory of our complacent acceptance of the social segregation of the handicapped--as mortified as we are today by the memory of racial segregation. We are barely at the beginning of the last great inclusion in American life, the inclusion of the handicapped, and especially the mentally handicapped. This should have been, and still could be, the field where the Reagan administration confounds its critics and shows a subtlety in its conservatism.