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Disability Funding Salvaged in Senate Stimulus Bill, But Concerns Remain

Posted Feb 10 2009 10:10am

On Friday, many who advocate for the rights and needs of people with disabilities were dismayed to learn of the proposed Nelson-Collins amendment to the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act," which was and still is being debated in the U. S. Senate.  As reported in this blog space, the proposed amendment would have removed significant economic stimulus funding for special education, vocational rehabilitation, and independent living programs.  Fortunately, the Senate rejected the proposed withdrawal of funding from these programs.  If you contacted your Senators, you can feel good – at least momentarily – about the effectiveness of your advocacy.
However, we are not out of the proverbial woods yet.  The Senate remains poised to provide more than $13 billion for IDEA state grants and early intervention and $610 million for Rehabilitation Act Title I and independent living services, but there are important differences between the Senate bill, which is expected to be approved on Tuesday evening, and the economic stimulus bill which was passed in the House last week.  One significant difference is that the Senate bill would allow the state governors to redirect the special education funding to cover spending for other purposes, if approved by the Secretary of Education. Nothing in my experience as a parent of children with learning disabilities, or as a person with a disability myself, and nothing I know about current economic conditions in my, and other, states, and the political jockeying that accompanies every state's efforts to achieve a balanced budget gives me any confidence that, without specific safeguards, the special education funding of more than $13 billion for IDEA state grants and early intervention programs would, if the provisions under the Senate bill were to prevail, be preserved by state governments. I believe that the very fact that Nelson and Collins didn't hesitate to target people with disabilities when they were looking for places to cut the stimulus package is just one more verification of how easy it is to marginalize people with disabilities, as compared, say, to the Pentagon, or the clean coal industry, or any number of other special interests hoping for economic stimulus funding.  Does anyone think that the governors in our various states will have second thoughts about redirecting the special education funding to other, perhaps more politically "pressing"  purposes, especially when many governors are required to present balanced budgets to their legislatures?
The House bill requires funding specifically appropriated for special education programs to be used for those purposes, and so we might expect the Senate's "IDEA-funding  escape Clause" to disappear when the two bills are reconciled in conference committee, but some speculate that this step in the legislative process may be skipped, possibly at White House urging, in an effort to expedite passage of such a crucially important bill. In this scenario, the House would be presented with an opportunity to accept the Senate bill as a replacement for their own, and the safeguard for the IDEA funding would then disappear.  If that happens, there will be no opportunity to advocate for preservation of the language contained in the House bill.
Another difference between the two bills is in the specificity of guidance for funds that are provided under the umbrella of independent living.  Today, both  the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) and a coalition of organizations who advocate on behalf of people who are blind and visually impaired, including the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), have expressed reservations about the lack of specificity in the language in the Senate bill, which could, they believe, result in decreased funding for programs which are administered through the Councils for Independent Living, and to programs that support services and training for older adults who lose vision in later life.  First of all, the amounts provided for independent living programs overall are different.  The House bill provides that $200 million be added to the appropriation for Independent Living programs, while the Senate bill specifies only $110 million.  More important to people who advocate specifically on behalf of older people who become blind as a result of age-related macular degeneration, diabetes, and other diseases of aging, is the fact that, whereas the House bill specifically requires that $50.6 million be spent for the Title VII, Chapter 2, Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program authorized under the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, the Senate bill does not.  
There is an epidemic of visual impairment and blindness currently occurring in the population of people over 60.  In every state, the number of people who need specialized training to cope with low vision and blindness is growing.  If the needs of this growing population are not met, then we can expect that a significant  percentage of this population will leave full and part-time work much earlier than they, or their employers anticipated, that their family members will need to assist with the tasks of daily living which their newly visually impaired parents will have no idea how to accomplish, that the epidemic of low vision will morph into an epidemic of depression, and that the impact on states' already overburdened social services programs will increase dramatically.  Anyone who has benefited from, or whose family members have benefited from receiving blindness-related services under the independent living grant-funded programs can tell you that the payback from these programs cannot be overestimated; orientation and mobility training, low vision interventions and services, and rehabilitation teaching make the difference for newly blind older adults, between a devastating loss of independence, and a quality of life that is fulfilling and rewarding.
Allocating funds to expand services for the growing population of older people who become blind and visually impaired makes economic sense, especially at a time when retirement funds have diminished for so many and people at every stage of life find themselves with fewer resources and fewer options.  
So, it appears, that opportunities for advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities with respect to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have not disappeared.  Late this afternoon, the Senate voted to close debate on the bill, and the vote will take place in the Senate sometime tomorrow.  Then, if both bills are sent to a conference committee, which, under normal (not crisis) circumstances is what we would expect, there will be opportunities to advocate to:
Include the crucially important level of funding that the House bill contains;  
Preserve the specificity of language defining funding with respect to independent living grants; and  
Preserve the House bill's requirements for spending special education funding for special education and early intervention programs for children with disabilities.
People with disabilities and their advocates have achieved a victory by returning funding for special education, vocational rehabilitation, and independent living programs to the Senate's economic stimulus package.  But, we can't stop there.  If you care about children with disabilities who need individualized education programs that can prepare them for living independently in the future, if you care about the job counseling, peer support, training, and advocacy that occur in the Centers for Independent Living across the country, and if you care about your parents and grandparents who may need the specialized training that can be provided only by vision rehabilitation therapists, low vision specialists, and orientation and mobility specialists, then call your Senators again, and call your Representatives as well.
Whether or not the two bills are reconciled in conference committee, or the House has to decide whether to adopt the language of the Senate bill, it is important that we who understand our needs better than anyone else advocate for the economic stimulus funding that will not leave us or the people we care about behind at a time of economic uncertainty and looming crises.
You will find all the information you need, including telephone numbers and e-mail links,  at:

Key Words:  Senate economic stimulus bill, disability funding, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, special education, vocational rehabilitation, independent living, effective advocacy, IDEA state grants and early intervention, Rehabilitation Act Title I  and independent living services, balanced state budgets, National Council on Independent Living, NCIL, American Foundation for the Blind, AFB, American Council of the Blind, ACB,  funding amounts differ, age-related macular degeneration, diabetes, and other diseases of aging, Title VII, Chapter 2, Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program, opportunities for advocacy

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