Representatives of the National Council on Independent Living staged a walkout Sunday from a meeting with the Rehabilitation Services Administration, the federal agency that monitors the group to ensure that its members' facilities are accessible to the disabled. The complaint: The agency failed to make the meeting accessible to all the disabled participants.
The meeting was hosted by the RSA, a part of the Education Department, and was designed to provide information on federal programs to the council, whose members are advocates and administrators of housing and educational help programs for the disabled. The meeting was scheduled to follow the council's annual convention in the District last week, which attracted more than 800 people.
"There were a large number of people who could not read the material--and this is the federal agency that monitors us," said Paul Spooner, president of the council. "They only had material in regular print, and some things in large print."
Spooner said he was outside the conference room at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel when some participants came into the hall and angrily informed him of the RSA's failure to provide materials in Braille or on audio tapes. The RSA staff canceled the meeting after Spooner and the remainder of the invited guests joined the protest.
According to its own policy, the agency is required to make all informational material available in "alternative formats," which include large print, Braille, audio tape and files on computer disk.
RSA Commissioner Frederic K. Schroeder apologized for the inaccessible meeting.
"There is simply no good reason for it to have happened. We just simply failed to do what we were supposed to do," Schroeder said. "We had a responsibility not just to do the minimum but to be a model. We respect the feelings of those who are upset with us. They have a right to be."
Schroeder said the agency is studying whether to compensate the participants for the money spent to attend the RSA meeting. In addition, the agency has offered to reschedule the session at a later date. He said this kind of mistake will not happen again.
But Spooner said this wasn't a onetime error. "Over the past year, we've had numerous complaints of inaccessible materials. People have asked for sign language interpreters. People have asked that material be sent by e-mail. And it hasn't happened," said Spooner. "We've sat around and listened to the excuses, and given people breaks, but we finally felt like enough is enough."
Spooner's group is a coalition of more than 300 nonprofit independent living organizations and the "state independent living councils" that oversee them. The councils are mandated by federal law to oversee state and local groups receiving federal funds to assist the disabled with living independently.
The RSA has a $2.5 billion budget, most of which it spends on job training for the disabled, including about $80 million in grants to state agencies and more than 250 centers that provide information and training to help the disabled live outside institutions. The RSA also inspects the centers it supports; 15 percent are required to undergo annual on-site compliance reviews.
The RSA's independent living programs serve more than 200,000 people annually, according to Tom Finch, the agency's director of special projects.
"This federal agency can come to my center in Framingham and shut it down for not following the rules," said Spooner, who is also director of the Metrowest Center for Independent Living in Framingham, Mass. "And for them to not follow the rules, it's outrageous."