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Senator Kerry's Response to the American Association of People with Disabilitiy Questionnaire

The following response to AAPD's questionnaire is provided by the Kerry-Edwards campaign. AAPD is non-partisan and shares information about candidates' disability-related policy positions for educational purposes.


What are your top three accomplishments on behalf of people with disabilities in your career to date as an elected official?

One of my things that I am most proud of is having cosponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation enacted since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1987, I drafted the Technology to Educate Children with Handicaps (TECH) Act, which created assistive device centers across the country to ensure all children with special needs have access to the assistive devices necessary to get an education. These centers train specialists, teachers, and therapists to identify students who could benefit from such technologies. These centers also inform parents, educators and therapists on how to support and incorporate these devices into children's educational experiences. I fought hard to enact this legislation so that children with disabilities could gain independence in the classroom and throughout their lives. The goals of my legislative proposal were later incorporated into the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988.

I have had a long-time commitment to protecting the rights of individuals disabled by mental illness. I was an original cosponsor of the landmark Mental Health Parity Act passed by Congress in 1996, which requires parity for annual and lifetime dollar limit coverage for mental health treatment. While its enactment marked an important step in the fight for providing greater mental health treatment benefits, it is time now to take another step toward the goal of mental health parity. Consequently, I strongly support the Senator Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003. This legislation will provide for equal coverage of mental health benefits with respect to health insurance coverage unless comparable limitations are imposed on medical and surgical benefits.

In my work on the Small Business Committee, I was involved in achieving the landmark goal of assuring that veterans with disabilities have an opportunity to receive a three percent share of Federal Contracts. With federal contracts today worth $250 billion, small businesses owned by veterans with disabilities have access to $7.5 billion in business opportunities.

If you are elected what will be your top three priorities during your first 100 days in office to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities living in the U.S.?

I will offer Americans with disabilities freedom, independence, and choices. I will appoint a national bipartisan Community First Commission made up of distinguished Americans, including people with disabilities who will identify short and long term policy reforms that could and should be pursued to:

To make our system work and to offer real choices, we must ensure equal access to quality home and community services throughout our nation. I will work with the Community First Commission to determine how we can move MiCASSA forward. And I will work with states to fully implement the Olmstead Decision, as well as push Congress to finally pass the Family Opportunity Act.

I believe we need full mental health parity once and for all - not just mental health parity for certain benefits or certain mental health conditions or with unnecessary loopholes that allow insurers to skirt their responsibility. I will fight to pass full mental health parity legislation

I will utilize the skills and wisdom of the disability community in shaping policy and programs that will benefit the entire country, and I will seek out qualified people with disabilities to serve throughout my administration.

Americans with disabilities deserve independence and the opportunity to be economically self-sufficient. I will reinstate the executive order by President Bill Clinton to hire 100,000 qualified individuals with disabilities as federal employees over five years. I will crack down on employment discrimination and nominate an Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice and a Chair to the EEOC who will make enforcement of the ADA a top priority. And I will promote creative solutions to address the transportation, technology, and housing needs for individuals with disabilities.

To ensure that children with disabilities get the free, high quality education they deserve, I am committed to fully funding IDEA and working for strong enforcement and real compliance with the law. And to expand access to higher education, I will improve transitional planning, promote access and awareness in disability services, provide work-study alternatives, and collect data on students with disabilities to provide a true scientific understanding of the realities on the ground.

What ideas do you have for bringing our four largest federal programs (Medicaid, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income, and Social Security Disability Insurance) in line with the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency)?

We must strengthen and protect Medicaid, not tear it apart. I am firmly opposed to the Bush administration's proposal to turn Medicaid into a block grant program. By investing in Medicaid, we can improve the health and independence of more than 10 million children, adults, and older Americans with disabilities throughout our country. No one should be forced to be in a nursing home or have their most basic needs go unmet because they live in a state that chooses not to offer necessary community living services. That is why I believe that we need to relieve pressures on state budgets; I have proposed spending $25 billion to help states struggling to bridge their deficits.

I support strengthening and improving Medicaid in several key ways. First, I believe that we must pass the Family Opportunity Act. Currently, low-income families with severely disabled children receive federal disability benefits under Supplemental Security Income. However, if parents seek a better job or earn higher wages, their disabled children lose Medicaid coverage, which is essential to providing comprehensive coverage for children who require complex and often costly care. No parent should have to turn down a job or give up custody of a child to ensure that he or she gets health care.

We need to fully implement the Olmstead decision. People with disabilities and older Americans must receive the support they need to live in their own homes and communities. States must be given increased resources and tools to carry out the Olmstead decision and must be held accountable for doing so. Americans with disabilities must be assured equal access to quality home and community living services.

I will work with the Community First Commission to determine how we can best implement MiCASSA and the Money Follows the Person Act. We need to end the institutional bias that makes it impossible for millions of Americans to exercise the most basic of human liberties: freedom, choice, and independence.

I will work toward eliminating the two-year waiting period to become eligible for Medicare. The federal government has a critical role to play to assure that workers with disabilities have the insurance coverage they need to be as independent and productive as possible. And I will direct HHS to fund a series of demonstrations aimed at identifying cost effective ways that best promote the health, independence and productivity of people with disabilities and to promote better health care.

I will also work to provide real prescription drug relief through the Medicare program. My health care plan will lower prescription drug costs, and ensure that seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare can choose their doctors instead of forcing them to join an HMO.

Another important program to millions of Americans with disabilities is the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act (TWWIIA). TWWIIA seeks to guarantee continued access to vital Medicare and Medicaid coverage to enable individuals with significant disabilities to become competitively employed under certain conditions.

As a result of this law, about half of the states today allow employed individuals with disabilities to buy into Medicaid if their incomes and assets do not exceed certain limits and meet other criteria set by each state. These Medicaid buy-in programs vary widely from one state to another, however, both in regard to the eligibility requirements they set and the benefits and services they make available. Moreover, if the current economic downturn continues, states that currently have these plans in place may have to cut back or eliminate them all together. In addition, few other states will be in a position to create new buy-in programs.

The federal government must play a far greater role in ensuring that workers with disabilities have the insurance coverage they need to be as independent and productive as possible. Regardless of where these individuals live or how much they are able to earn, they should be able to buy in to a uniform, national set of benefits designed to do just this. To help achieve these ends, the Medicare program should provide for enhanced coverage for employed individuals with disabilities.

What do you see as the most appropriate role for the federal government to play in the lives of people with disabilities and their families and what is your reaction to recent trends limiting the federal role in disability policy?

Now more than ever people with disabilities of all ages can live fuller, more productive lives if afforded the right opportunities and supports. The federal government has a strong obligation and role to play in ensuring that these Americans have the same chance to succeed in life as all other citizens. The government must meet its commitment to enforce laws that protect the disability community. The moral imperative is clear.

The federal government must help provide high quality, accessible and affordable health care and community living services to people with disabilities. That's why my Administration will modernize Medicaid and Medicare and work with states to implement home and community based services.

My administration also will play a role in enforcing civil rights laws for people with disabilities. The Department of Justice and the EEOC will make enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act a top priority. And I will ensure that the Offices of Civil Rights at the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services provide people with disabilities the protections they deserve.

We need to have a more focused effort on recruiting and employing people with disabilities in America. One place we can start is with a targeted effort in the federal government. The federal government has massive spending powers that can and should be used to promote the employment of individuals with disabilities. I will promote increasing the goal for small business contracting and ensuring that business owners with disabilities have equal status to other minority business owners.

The federal government must meet its obligation to provide a high quality education to all children with disabilities. My administration will put us on a path to fully fund IDEA. But funding must be accompanied by effective enforcement. As president, I will fight for strong enforcement that includes measurement and protecting procedural safeguards.

The federal government can also improve the lives of people with disabilities in the areas of transportation and technology. Many of the technological advances made through the work of the Defense Department and NASA are transferable to people with disabilities, and could enhance their capacity to work. This technology should be made available when appropriate for use by people with disabilities. And the federal government should use its considerable economic power to encourage and lead private enterprise in building a more accessible society through technology. My administration will also ensure that transportation options are accessible to people with disabilities.

What concrete steps will you take to ensure your administration and your appointments to the federal bench and other entities include a representative group of qualified people with disabilities?

People with disabilities will always have a seat front and center in my administration. When I am president, Americans with disabilities will play active roles not only in policy-making which impacts the disability community, but also in other areas of domestic policy. I will seek out the best and brightest to serve in multiple capacities throughout the government, including in the White House and on my Community First Commission.

Also, I will reinstate the Executive Order by President Clinton to hire 100,000 qualified individuals with disabilities as federal employees over five years. And in a Kerry administration, the Office of Federal Contracts and Compliance Programs at the Department of Labor will be held accountable in ensuring that federal contractors are not just reaching out to people with disabilities, but hiring them as well. Goals will be set for the hiring of people with disabilities similar to the ones set for women and veterans. The federal government will leverage its considerable economic power to ensure that private industry provides employment opportunities to people with disabilities.

What will you do as President to dramatically increase the percentage of children with disabilities who graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary education?

If the goal of the disability-rights movement is to create opportunities for Americans with disabilities equal to those of their peers without disabilities, then education is the key that opens those doors. Empowering Americans with disabilities to be productive, job-holding, tax-paying citizens is both a moral obligation and an economic win.

First of all, we need mandatory full funding of IDEA. In 1975, Congress made a deal with our state and local school boards: give children with special learning needs the education they deserve, and the federal government would pay 40 percent of the additional cost, no matter what it takes. Nearly thirty years later, the federal government has broken that promise. Because of that broken promise, schools across the country have had to pit special education programs against one another. Class sizes increase, after-school activities are cut, and kids with special learning needs still aren't getting the services they need.

Regardless of funding, a law will only be as good as its enforcement. Across the country - in school districts large and small - this law is not being followed. In many cases, the good intentions of teachers and principals are undermined by a lack of understanding of the law. The same is true for many parents, who often do not know the rights to which they are entitled. In some cases, school officials need to be taught that IDEA isn't just a guideline, it's the law. Exhausted parents cannot and should not bear that burden. That is why strengthening IDEA enforcement will be a priority in my administration.

A college education is now a near-universal requirement for professional employment. Unfortunately, that level of independence is still but a dream for many of our youth with disabilities who continue to face significant barriers to higher education. I am committed to equipping the next generation of students with disabilities with the tools to succeed.

First, I will improve transitional planning. As with other at-risk youth, early outreach programs can be enormously successful in affecting positive change. Yet despite the mandate for such services under IDEA, transitional-planning programs seem to be an early casualty of non-compliance. I will further leverage Department of Education resources to create and advertise a single national resource for transitional planning assistance.

Making sense of the web of college financial assistance programs is a difficult task. When disability-assistance services are added to the mix, the task becomes overwhelming. We must better coordinate vocational rehabilitation, SSI, and federal student aid services in a way that is meaningful for students, not bureaucrats.

We need to provide work-study alternatives. Lacking neither in work ethic nor financial need, many students with disabilities are physically incapable of utilizing work- study programs. Such assistance can mean the difference between attending college and staying home. It is in all of our best interests to ensure fair alternatives.

Finally, even today, we rely primarily on anecdotal information when discussing disability issues in higher education. We lack a true scientific understanding of the realities on the ground. That must change if we are to adequately plan for the future. Policies can only be effective so long as they are practical. As president, I will direct the Secretary of Education to solicit disability status and accommodation-cost data so we can arm ourselves with the tools to take meaningful action.

What will your administration do to improve the accessibility of mainstream technologies and access to assistive technologies for people with disabilities?

Technology must be harnessed effectively to empower people, particularly those who are often the least empowered in our society. I will work to make electronic information and technology truly accessible.

Many of the technological advances made through the work of the Defense Department and NASA are transferable to people with disabilities, and could enhance their capacity to work. This technology should and will be made available when appropriate for use by people with disabilities.

New technology is often costly, as the first people to use the technology are underwriting a large proportion of the development costs. The problem is that the persons most in need of the liberation that technology provides are often the least able to afford it. I will direct federal agencies to assess how their resources have been allocated to assist people with disabilities, and work on promoting a goal to increase targets across the board. I want our government to help cultivate new, cutting-edge technology.

People who need assistive technology are often confronted with a bewildering array of potential funding sources that are difficult to sort out. I will assemble an intergovernmental team to review current programs which pay for assistive technology and direct them to develop a plan of cooperation. The plan would investigate the potential of pooling various federal funds to create a single funding mechanism.

How will you work with disability advocates and Congress to draft and promote legislation to restore civil rights protections for qualified disabled individuals who have been left out by U.S. Supreme Court decisions interpreting the ADA, especially in the area of employment?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the most important civil rights law for persons with disabilities. It is vital that we enforce the law and that we fight recent judicial and legislative actions to weaken it. First of all, I will nominate judges whom I believe will enforce and uphold our civil rights laws to ensure the protections promised under its enactment. I will work with Congress and the disability community to pass legislation that restores civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities who have been harmed by court decisions restricting the scope of the protected class under ADA. I will also nominate an attorney general and an EEOC chair who will make enforcement of the ADA a top priority.

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[Updated July 31, 2004]
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