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"2003 State of the Union for People with Disabilities"

January 29, 2003

This article was written and published by the National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.). Redistribution and reprinting of this article is encouraged by N.O.D.


America's 54 million citizens with disabilities are determined to participate fully and equally in national and community life. But significant participation gaps between Americans with and without disabilities persist in employment, income levels, education, community activities, political and religious life, access to housing, transportation and healthcare, and emergency preparedness. Closing these gaps - both through the work of people with disabilities and the involvement of others in our society, including the government -- is America's Disability Agenda.

Who feels the tightening economy most? Those who have the least income; people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty as other Americans. Who feels the squeeze of increased unemployment rates first? Those with the lowest rates of employment and the most vulnerable jobs. Only one-third of Americans with disabilities are working full or part time, and many lack job security. Who will be the most vulnerable when terrorists next strike? Those who have mobility, sensory, mental or psychiatric disabilities, who may be less prepared for an emergency and may encounter barriers to evacuation. Finally, if a war does break out in the Middle East, a large number of U.S. forces may, like their counterparts in the Gulf War, return with disabilities, needing their government's and society's support to rebuild their lives.

In his January 28 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush will address many issues of importance to this country. We hope the President will use this opportunity to focus public attention on topics that are in the minds of America's disability community -- roughly one- fifth of this nation's population -- and share with the country a commitment to improve their lives. The nonpartisan appeal of maximizing the participation and contribution of people with disabilities is compelling.

Beyond the President and his administration, we look to government leaders at all levels to recognize and advance efforts that will benefit their constituents who have disabilities. Every member of the newly elected Congress, as well as each official at the state, regional, and local levels, has a constituency, roughly 20 percent of whom have disabilities. When civic leaders understand the issues that touch our lives and are dedicated to their constituents, Americans with disabilities benefit.

The disabilities that Americans live with run a wide gamut, including mental, physical, and sensory conditions. These conditions vary in degrees of severity, and can be caused by any number of factors, including genetics, illness, age, violence, and accidents. Their common definition is that they in some way limit a person's ability to participate fully in one or more major life activities. No one should dismiss disability issues as irrelevant, for anyone can join the disability community in an instant.

The year 2002 was a difficult year for the nation as a whole and the disability community in particular. While the security concerns initiated by the terrorist attacks of the previous fall, the war on terrorism, and heightened international tensions preoccupied much of the nation, the recession and record budget shortfalls in many states have strained certain sectors of society. Particularly hurt by the recent economic difficulties have been people with disabilities, many of whom rely on services that have been scaled back or cut entirely from recent budgets. At the beginning of 2003 this is an urgent concern.


All Americans learned the importance of emergency preparedness in the wake of September 11, and the nation has worked for the past 16 months to become better prepared -- not only for terrorist attacks, but for any emergency that might arise. No population segment needs to make such preparations more than people with disabilities. Our survival is contingent upon making plans and preparations that accommodate the needs of our varied disabilities. The most important planning is done for the buildings, facilities and communities where people go about their daily lives.

According to a late 2001 Harris Poll survey released by the National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.), 58 percent of people with disabilities do not know whom to contact about emergency plans for their community in the event of a terrorist attack or other man-made or natural crisis. Sixty-one percent have not made plans to quickly and safely evacuate their home. Among those who are employed full or part time, 50 percent say no plans have been made to safely evacuate their workplace.

These percentages are notably higher than for those without disabilities. While the country as a whole has much catching up to do in order to be prepared for emergencies, people with disabilities and emergency preparedness officials at all levels need to focus on this issue.

Intense national planning for emergencies is needed. This requires the enthusiastic cooperation of the government, business, and communities. People with disabilities should not only be considered as beneficiaries of emergency preparedness plans devised by others-they also belong in the planning meetings, contributing their unique perspectives, insights and experiences, so the resulting plans will be the best for all Americans. People with disabilities must be included in community preparedness committees across the nation and at the highest levels of government planning.


Throughout the world, America is regarded as the land of opportunity. Opportunity begins with education. Unfortunately, young people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school, and only half as likely to complete college as other American youths. Education for students with disabilities is a critical priority. Students with special needs deserve the chance to develop their skills and their minds so they can be prepared for the workforce of the future. In the first decade of the new millennium, America should dramatically increase opportunities for students with disabilities.

Tremendous progress has been made in "mainstreaming" students with disabilities since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was first introduced nearly three decades ago. IDEA reauthorization is on the agenda of the 108th Congress as it convenes and we look to our legislators to assure this important legislation continues to maximize students' opportunities.

Mainstreaming is a win/win situation that increases opportunities for those students, and interacting also acclimates other students to their peers who have disabilities. Youngsters who have friends and acquaintances with disabilities learn to see beyond the disability and to focus on the whole person. They grow up expecting to interact with diverse people in the workforce and in their communities, dissolving prejudices and stereotypes in the process.


The slowing economy was a significant issue before September 11, 2001, and people with disabilities were at a disadvantage. Lower rates of employment, and lower earnings among those who are employed, limit many people's opportunities. This situation has become more critical since September 11, 2001.

Only 32 percent of Americans with disabilities of working age are employed full or part time. That number is in contrast to 81 percent of Americans without disabilities, according to the comprehensive N.O.D./Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities. It is a national tragedy that, a dozen years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which promised to remove barriers to employment, the vast majority of Americans with disabilities remain unemployed. This is not by choice; two out of three who are not employed say they would prefer to be working. Any efforts that lead to their becoming employed are good investments that will benefit these individuals, the workforce, and the economy.

Too often, even when people with disabilities find jobs, they are low-level, low-paying jobs. Yet it is well documented that employers find workers with disabilities excel at many levels.

President Bush made a commitment to greater employment for people with disabilities in the New Freedom Initiative (see below). Last year, in our State of the Union 2002, we called on the President and Congress to keep employment a priority, and to lead an effort toward the national goal of 50 percent employment in the next decade. While this goal may be difficult to achieve, the economic benefit to the nation would be considerable.

It is not surprising, given the lower rate of employment for people with disabilities, that a notable income gap exists between those with and without disabilities. People who have disabilities are roughly three times as likely to live in poverty, with 29 percent having annual household incomes below the poverty level. Conversely, people with disabilities are less than half as likely to live in households that earn more than $50,000 annually. This income gap contributes to and compounds the disadvantages that people with disabilities face in all aspects of life.

With every passing year, newer and often increasingly affordable technology makes it easier, or makes it possible, for people with disabilities to expand their independence. Technological advances from the Internet, to screen reading and voice recognition software, to wireless phone technology, to advances that can enhance people's ability to sense and move and even prolong life, make this a promising era for people with disabilities. This can be a time of boundless possibilities for people with disabilities, if such technologies are made available so that people can use them to maximize their potential as students, workers, and community members. The more that governments on all levels and corporations invest in these tools for the disability community, the more they can increase independence and facilitate full participation in and contribution to American life.


It is in the communities of America that people with disabilities go about their lives, and where progress is realized. The N.O.D./Harris Survey of Community Participation finds that people with disabilities feel more isolated from their communities, participate in fewer community activities, and are less satisfied with their community participation than their counterparts who do not have disabilities. At a time when community budgets are being cut, the quality of life for citizens with disabilities is further threatened.

Thirty-five percent of people with disabilities say they are not at all involved with their communities or local organizations, compared to 21 percent of their non-disabled counterparts. They feel more isolated from others and more left out than those without disabilities.

While people with disabilities need to be more assertive and reach out, mayors and other community leaders have a responsibility to make sure their communities are livable places for all their residents, including those with disabilities. Many community leaders are demonstrating commitment because they recognize that close to 20 percent of their citizens have disabilities. Most members of the community live with or know relatives and friends with disabilities.

Access to faith and religious life is important for many Americans. Yet there is a serious gap in the levels of religious participation between people with and without disabilities. All congregations should wish to make a sincere commitment to be welcoming to people with disabilities. To do so, they must commit to identifying and removing barriers of architecture, communications and attitudes that prevent people with disabilities from having a full life of faith.


Living independently is the goal of most Americans with disabilities, but several challenges must be met to achieve that independence. People who have disabilities often have insufficient access to affordable housing, transportation, and health care, which prevents them from being productive citizens and fully participating in the lives of their communities.

Many Americans with disabilities, faced with both underemployment and accessibility needs, are desperate for suitable, affordable housing. We call on the states and communities to increase the production of affordable, accessible housing units for those who need them.

Thirty percent of people with disabilities cite insufficient access to transportation as a problem -- three times the rate of the non-disabled. This gap affects many other areas of participation by people with disabilities, and creates a "catch-22" situation: How can one have a job if one cannot get to it? How can one afford transportation if one does not have a job? There is an urgent need for more and better disability-friendly transportation in the cities and towns of America.

Health care is also less accessible to Americans with disabilities, who often are the citizens needing it most. Due in large part to their limited employment and reduced discretionary income, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to delay needed health care because they cannot afford it. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by changes in policies in Medicare, Medicaid, and prescription drug benefits. The current trend toward cost-sharing by employees for medical care is a particular burden for lower income employees, many of whom have disabilities. There is a critical need at this time for further legislation to protect people with disabilities who need medical treatment and to aid them in getting their medications. No one has a greater stake in the national dialogue now under way about health care issues than people with disabilities, virtually all of whom are directly impacted.

When concerns about housing, transportation and healthcare are diminished, Americans with disabilities are freed to focus on participating in and contributing to the lives of their communities and their nation.


Many years of hard work and intense debate resulted in a groundbreaking vote reform law that Congress passed and the President signed last fall. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 will benefit voters and potential voters with disabilities. This bill will move us dramatically toward our goals of increased registration, voter turnout, and polling place and voting machine accessibility for America's disability community. In addition to improving the voting system in ways that will be appreciated by all voters, this legislation mandates and provides funding for accessibility for millions of American voters who have disabilities.

Important provisions in the bill that will benefit the disability community include: requiring at least one voting machine that is accessible to people with disabilities at each polling place; providing funding to buy and retire punch-card and lever voting machines in favor of more user- friendly ones; earmarking $100 million to make polling places accessible for voters with disabilities; funding research for new voting technologies; and funding state protection and advocacy systems' work to help individuals register to vote, access polling places, and cast votes.

This bill, in the tradition of other civil rights laws, will only succeed if it is properly funded and effectively enforced. It is our hope that jurisdictions will move faster than the law mandates. Installation of an accessible voting machine at each polling place, for example, is not required until 2006, but nothing is gained by delay, except the deferment of people's right to vote. None of the barriers that have kept citizens with disabilities from voting should be allowed to remain by the time of the 2004 Presidential election. The disability community calls on the government at all levels to ensure these obstacles are removed.


President George H.W. Bush, father of the current President, pledged his support for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when he was a candidate in 1988. Polls showed he was aided in his bid for the presidency by the support of many in the disability community, and he rewarded them for their support by signing the landmark legislation on July 26, 1990.

Now more than 12 years old, the ADA has firmly established the civil rights of Americans with disabilities, and it has proven popular with the nation. A Harris Poll study commissioned by the National Organization on Disability in the summer of 2002 found that 77 percent of Americans were familiar with the law, and of those, 93 percent said they approve of and support it.

However, even while public awareness and support for the ADA are at record levels, several Supreme Court cases in the past year have been seen as weakening it. Congressman Steny Hoyer and others have raised the question of whether the ADA needs to be reviewed and strengthened. If its authors' clear intention-making the nation a better and fairer place for those with disabilities to live-is not being honored, legislative action to preserve and protect our civil rights law is indeed needed.

The first Bush Administration helped the ADA become the law of the land. We now look to the second Bush Administration to speak out against anything that weakens the law, and to rededicate the Justice Department to its effective enforcement. Our country's strength depends upon it.

We urge the President and state governors to nominate, and our legislators to approve, judges and other officials who have demonstrated a dedication to enforcing the ADA and to promoting, rather than questioning, the rights of individuals with disabilities.

In his second week in office, President Bush sent a strong message of support for America's Disability Agenda by announcing the New Freedom Initiative. Coming a decade after his father signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Freedom Initiative lays out an ambitious agenda for progress. The New Freedom Initiative holds much promise. But to be truly successful, and to be a hallmark of this Administration, the New Freedom Initiative's goals must be shared with the nation and implemented legislatively. Interrupted by the aftermath of September 11 and an economic recession, the New Freedom Initiative has had only limited impact to date.

The issues that the New Freedom Initiative addresses remain pressing ones, and we look to the President to advance them in the second half of his term. This month's proposal in the FY 2004 budget of $1.75 billion to help people with disabilities transition from institutions to community living is one example of a major project that can make the New Freedom Initiative a noteworthy advance.


A clear majority of people with disabilities, 63 percent, say that life has improved for the disability community in the past decade. But when asked about their own life satisfaction, only 33 percent say they are very satisfied with their life in general-half as many as among those without disabilities. There is much room for improvement, and the disability community looks to the President and his Administration, the Congress, and all those in a position of community leadership to work proactively and productively with us to ensure that people with disabilities are participating fully in national and community life.

America is in many ways the world leader in access, opportunity, and inclusion of people with disabilities. Much progress has been made, and many walls of exclusion have been leveled. People with disabilities celebrate the progress of this nation, and remain dedicated to the vision of a day when all people, no matter how they are born or what conditions they acquire, will be full and equal participants in American life. Moving America's disability agenda forward will enhance the State of the Union for all Americans, both with and without disabilities.

N.O.D. encourages all to distribute this article or reprint it in any way they find helpful. This article is also posted on their website at www.nod.org, and will be followed up with additional comments regarding the President's State of the Union Address.

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[Updated January 31, 2003]
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