Politics & Policy

Empowering the Disabled

Programs intended to help Americans with disabilities instead keep them dependent.

Until now, policy ideas designed to help Americans with disabilities have been viewed as the exclusive province of liberals. Despite the fact that important measures such as the Americans with Disabilities Act passed only with crucial Republican support, the public — and the community of disability advocates — normally identifies this issue with the Democratic party. It is even the case that many Republicans think of disability policy as being the province of liberals, because they identify the issue with bureaucratic regulation and government handouts.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that — although we’ve come a long way — our existing policies are antiquated, costly to society, and inadequate to meet the changing needs of Americans with disabilities and their families. Big expensive government is not the answer for people without disabilities, nor is it for those with. Reducing the entanglement of Big Government in order to benefit people with disabilities should be a top priority for the Republican party.

#ad#Today, nearly one in five Americans — 19 percent — has some sort of disability, either physical or intellectual, according to the most recent Census statistics. This works out to over 54 million of our fellow citizens, roughly equal to the populations of California and Florida combined. It is also the only class that any American can join at any time in his or her lifetime.

The heated battles over the soaring national debt and federal spending give Republicans an historic opportunity to create a paradigm shift in policy that will empower the disabled population in a way that is consistent with our determination to reduce the size and scope of government and promote long-term fiscal solvency. This, in turn, has the potential to attract to the Republican party millions of voters who have been viewed as naturally belonging to the party of the failed Great Society programs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21.6 percent of the disabled population was included in the workforce at the end of 2009. This is compared to 70 percent for persons with no disability. For those with intellectual disabilities, the workforce-participation rate is much lower. The significant disparity in work opportunities for people with disabilities is the direct result of government programs and policies that propagate dependency.

For example, the parents of a child with a disability face a stark and inequitable dilemma when it comes to saving and building assets. They must either set aside the total amount of resources necessary to provide care and support for their child throughout his or her entire lifetime, or else rely exclusively on public benefits. Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate that would allow individuals with disabilities to take the money they earn working and receive from family members and set it aside in savings accounts that offer the same flexibility and portability that are available to all other Americans. Bipartisan legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate, known as the “Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act,” provides a vehicle for individuals and their families to save and build assets without jeopardizing their access to the critical support programs provided by the federal, state, and local governments. And by reducing taxpayer support, this legislation will also reduce the long-term federal budget deficit.

In addition, Medicaid should focus its resources so as to provide individuals with choice. That program is the most significant obstacle to economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. Today, 8.5 million people with disabilities under the age of 65 rely on Medicaid. While the majority of them are in home or community-based environments, many remain in institutionalized settings. There are thousands of individuals who don’t need to live in an institution, and yet continue to do so in order to receive essential medical care. This results in further segregation and creates additional barriers to their successful participation in society.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s health-care reform law will make matters worse by mandating a major expansion of the Medicaid rolls that no state can afford, thus causing the elderly, disabled, and truly poor to compete with the less vulnerable, and entangling more disabled Americans in a system that breeds frustration and false hope.

#page#States need the flexibility to adjust the eligibility requirements for Medicaid so that the program continues to serve the neediest among us and does not become the default medical-insurance program for a wide variety of groups, as the health-care reform law mandates after 2014. The one population that should absolutely be in Medicaid is the disabled. And yet they are the most vulnerable to being lost in the shuffle if Medicaid is allowed to become an alternative primary-insurance program for those who don’t need it.

To deal with this coming crisis in Medicaid, Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced the State Flexibility Act. The legislation would fundamentally change Medicaid from a federally directed, one-size-fits-all program into a true partnership between the states and the federal government, allowing states to adjust eligibility rolls to meet the needs of their citizens. By empowering the states to become “laboratories of democracy,” we can create a climate for innovation and cost savings, while ensuring that Medicaid continues to meet the needs of our most truly vulnerable.

#ad#Our education system also creates impediments to independence and self-sufficiency for children with disabilities. In the 35 years since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, many states have yet to come close to fulfilling their legal mandate to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with special needs. While states often point to the lack of full federal funding as the culprit, it is apparent that education bureaucracies resent what they see as the drain on limited resources that providing for students with special education needs entails. As a result, special education programs are often first on the chopping block in times of budget cuts, and the interests of this especially vulnerable population of students are the first to be sacrificed.

Regardless of the cause, few would deny the fact that many parents of children with special needs do not currently have adequate options for the education of their children. For example, many special-needs students would benefit from a high-school curriculum that emphasized vocational training, and yet few high schools these days offer it. That is why parents should have the right to choose the best education program — and even the best school — for their children with special needs.

Like all Americans, people with disabilities want to maximize the opportunities they have been given in order to contribute to a truly great society. And while our country has come a long way in creating opportunities for them to live more fulfilling lives, more can and must be done to address the antiquated disability policies that encourage dependency, the growth of government, and institutionalization. Taking the principles of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and applying them to the 19 percent of Americans who have been left behind represents an enormous opportunity to unleash the potential of millions of people with disabilities.

What the community of Americans with disabilities and their families want today is programs and policies designed to empower those with disabilities to succeed on their own and live independently to the extent possible. Republicans should seize the opportunity presented by the current debate over federal spending to undertake a wholesale reform of our nation’s disability policies and to do so in a fiscally responsible way.

— Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the U.S. representative for Washington’s 5th Congressional District. She is co-chair of the Congressional Disabilities Caucus and the Down Syndrome Caucus.

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) is the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, the lead communications arm of the leadership team. She is the highest-ranking woman in Congress and the fourth-highest Republican in the House of Representatives.

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