Washington Is Disabling Service to the Disabled

You don't ask the guy who repairs your driveway to operate when your dog needs her teeth cleaned. You wouldn't dream of asking your favorite interior decorator to prepare your taxes. And you would k

May 18, 2005 at 2:06 pm

You don't ask the guy who repairs your driveway to operate when your dog needs her teeth cleaned. You wouldn't dream of asking your favorite interior decorator to prepare your taxes. And you would know it was preposterous if someone suggested that your daughter's piano teacher translate your company's promotional literature into French.

It's a given, in other words, that lots of important pieces of our complicated lives require experts, people with a particular category of knowledge or skill, if we want to get the job done — and done well.

The current Washington administration, apparently, doesn't have sufficient respect for people with disabilities to recognize that maybe they, too, deserve services designed by someone with a little expertise in the subject.

The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is an agency within the Department of Education whose role is to provide the education, training, equipment and whatever else is required to help people with disabilities become employed. They were largely responsible for paying for my college education and later for funding the technology I needed to change jobs. Their role and extent of involvement is as varied as are people themselves.

One client might need a sign-language interpreter to clarify lectures in a horticulture class. Another might need hand controls on a car to make driving possible.

Yet another might need recorded and electronic versions of textbooks that are, for whatever reason, undecipherable.

If you have a disability and want to work, you can be assigned a vocational rehabilitation counselor who works for an office connected to your state's agency. The state agency, in turn, is provided with technical assistance, policies and procedures by a network of about 10 regional offices around the country that take direction from the RSA commissioner in Washington.

This agency isn't just an employment or job placement agency. When the job is done well, its counselors determine the specific education, tools and/or adaptations required by the nature of a particular disability to put a person on equal ground with a jobseeker who doesn't have a disability.

If done well, it's not about ooey-gooey charity or tug-your-heart pity stuff. It's about identifying what tools and training are needed and how to deliver them.

It's not enough, say, to know that a deaf person can't hear. One deaf person speaks only in American Sign Language and needs a trained interpreter. Another only reads lips and real-time captioning. Still another has sufficient residual hearing that hearing aids and assistive listening devices make it possible for him to communicate like a hearing person. Still another might have no hearing but have a perfectly clear speaking voice, so that yet another style of communication assistance is needed.

The same diversity can be found within every type of disability. One person with a learning disability needs to hear materials read aloud and to compose all writing at a keyboard. Another needs an amanuensis — a person to write from his or her dictation — and still another needs a computer program to highlight text from documents placed on a scanner.

These examples are only a tiny fraction of the complex nuances comprising each person's disability and adaptations to bridge the divide between wishing and having a job. Apparently, the current administration doesn't quite get it.

In February, RSA Commissioner Joanne Wilson resigned. A person with a disability and a longtime advocate and policy maker, she quit because she didn't want to be a part of changes being promoted by the Department of Education and believed she could do more to help people with disabilities outside the federal agency than from within. President Bush has yet to bother to appoint a replacement.

Far worse, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has announced the intended closing of RSA's regional offices, signaling the terrifying move toward folding RSA's programs into other "one-stop shop" employment programs. The path is being laid for raiding RSA monies for other work-incentive programs and for discounting the comprehensive rehabilitation approach that sets RSA entirely apart from any other.

I say "terrifying" because I have seen what happens to a person who is blind or deaf or quadriplegic needing education or training, trying to get it through a program with no expertise in disability issues. In the wrong programs, the person with dyslexia is dubbed stupid, the deaf person uncooperative and the blind person incompetent. Nobody wins — and nobody works.

No one asked Wilson if this were a good idea — or any other representative of people with disabilities, for that matter. The 65 people, 28 of them with disabilities, who will lose their jobs if the offices close certainly weren't consulted.

Some 15 national organizations comprised of people with disabilities and their advocates are more than a little stirred up by the blatant disregard shown by the current administration, and they're not going to sit home and cry about it. A "peaceful, but determined" rally protesting the closing of the RSA regional offices is scheduled to take place May 26 on the front steps of the Department of Education in Washington.

Maybe if Spellings sees enough people at her doorstep with white canes, guide dogs, wheelchairs, walkers and an unpredictable assortment of human and electronic assistants — just maybe she'll catch on that people with disabilities want and need the RSA to continue conducting business as usual, that we deserve at least the respect of being asked what we want and that the adaptive techniques required to put a person with a disability on par with her temporarily able-bodied peer can't just be prescribed by any well-meaning "Aw shucks, aren't they special?" bureaucrat.

If you can't be there, e-mail or fax a plea that RSA be left as is and a new commissioner appointed by the president. You can contact Spellings at [email protected], fax her at 202-401-0596 or call her at 202-401-3000.