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Al Hunt and PWDs

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December 23, 2004


Go directly to the article entitled More Attention for Disabilities


Al Hunt is executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. His Journal responsibilities include writing the weekly editorial page column, "Politics and People," and directing the paper's political polls. He is president of the board of directors of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and director of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc., a Dow Jones subsidiary, and a member of the Journal's management committee.

In June 1965, Mr. Hunt joined the Journal as a reporter in New York. He was transferred to the Boston bureau in 1967 and moved to the Washington bureau in 1969. From 1972 to 1983, he covered Congress and national politics, and in October 1983, he became Washington bureau chief. He was named executive Washington editor in September 1993.

Mr. Hunt has been a member of Cable News Network's "The Capital Gang" since its inception in 1988. He is also a periodic panelist on the National Broadcasting Co.'s "Meet the Press." He is co-author of the American Enterprise Institute's "The American Elections of 1980," "The American Elections of 1982" and "The American Elections of 1984," the 1987 Brookings Institute's "Elections American Style," and 2002's "Profiles in Courage for Our Time."

Mr. Hunt was named the 1999 recipient of the William Allen White Foundation's national citation. Presented annually, the citation is one of the highest honors in journalism. In 1995, he and his wife, Judy Woodruff, received the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism from the University of South Dakota, and in 1976, he received a Raymond Clapper award for Washington reporting.

Born in Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Hunt graduated from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., with a bachelor's degree in political science. He and his wife, Judy Woodruff, CNN anchor for "Inside Politics" have three children and live in Washington.

Mr. Hunt invites comments to


More Attention for Disabilities
December 23, 2004; Page A11

Two presidential commissions recently issued reports on people with disabilities. One conveys a message of hope, the other help.

President Bush should pay attention to both sets of recommendations -- one this week by the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities and the other earlier in the month by the National Council on Disability. If he really is serious about an ownership society, he should embrace, forcefully, expanded opportunities for the tens of millions of Americans with physical or intellectual disabilities.

I read the intellectual disabilities report under delightful duress. Sally Atwater, the executive director, chastised me for months for what she feels are unbalanced criticisms of the Bush (43) record on disabilities. The commission's chairperson, Madeleine Will, has been more diplomatic but is equally persuasive.

"We still are much frozen in time; we have to move our attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities into the 21st century," says Ms. Will. "But we have made great progress and have models that work."

The report reflects this. America probably treats people with intellectual disabilities -- formerly called mentally retarded -- better than almost any other country in the world. Yet we still have a long way to go. Of those with intellectual disabilities, 26% drop out of school, only 15% receive post-secondary education and nine out of 10 are unemployed. Over 700,000 of these citizens live with parents aged 60 or older.

The commission offers some common sense analysis and suggestions: "Public assistance in exchange for enforced poverty and the absence of freedom is a bad deal -- one that fails all parties to the arrangement... A great challenge before our government and society is to will a public safety net that not only permits persons with intellectual disabilities to pursue economic and personal freedom, but also leads them to achieve it in a systematic way. This can only be accomplished in a culture that goes beyond mere toleration to one that warmly welcomes and appreciates persons with intellectual disabilities."

The proposals range from lifting the limits of public assistance -- children with intellectual disabilities aren't likely to accumulate more than $2,000 of assets if they want to continue receiving support -- to making the compelling case that these kids and adults can be integrated into school systems and the workplace.

A major emphasis is the need to change public perceptions. Too many people continue to believe those with intellectual disabilities are not capable of dealing with the everyday facets of life; many are. Here the commission calls on the president to play a more active role as "a spokesperson in a national campaign specifically targeted to school-aged children and employers to change negative attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities."

The National Council on Disability, a presidentially appointed panel that advises the White House and Congress, is calling on the president to back up any words with actions. Specifically they want an "ADA restoration" act to bolster deficiencies in the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA was the chief achievement of President Bush's father. It hasn't eliminated the myriad problems, but it has enabled millions of disabled Americans to begin the long march to full participation in society.

But the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, have undercut the ADA with a narrow, often antagonistic, approach. In a series of cases, a split court limited the coverage of the ADA. An example: The Epilepsy Foundation says that in 18 of 26 cases, the courts ruled that a person with epilepsy is not covered by the ADA because they don't have a real disability or it's only episodic or can be addressed with medication.

This clearly flies in the face of the intent of congressional authors, one of whom, former Democratic congressman Tony Coelho, is an epileptic. One change the council recommends would prohibit discrimination against anyone "on the basis of disability," instead of the more vague current standard.

The problems aren't just the courts. When cutbacks come or priorities are lowered, the disabled get hit disproportionately. A case in point: After Medicare fraud was discovered in Houston last year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, issued new guidelines declaring the government only would pay for power wheel chairs for people who couldn't walk at all.

Power chairs, for many with disabilities, offer an independence and freedom that transforms their daily lives. But this new policy denied coverage to disabled people, including senior citizens suffering from severe arthritis, multiple sclerosis and cardio-pulmonary afflictions. Many who fall into this category could walk a few steps but are at risk for falling and desperately need the assistance of a power chair.

There was uproar in the disabilities community, power-chair makers and politicians. CMS promised to devise a more rational and fair policy by year end. If the issue was a regulation that adversely affected a big drug company it would have turned around on a dime; with eight days left in 2004, CMS has yet to devise a new policy and claims continue to be rejected.

The president needs to use the bully pulpit, as his intellectual disabilities commission said. The public can be educated and good corporate citizens -- Microsoft and Marriott, for two -- should be praised, while those insensitive to disabilities -- like Wal-Mart -- should be chastised. Tim Shriver, who runs the Special Olympics, a crown jewel in the fight to value people with disabilities, suggests President Bush ought to expand this bully pulpit to the international sphere: perhaps a United Nations speech to showcase American efforts as a lodestar for the world.

Social Security or tax reform and health care are more salient domestic issues for George W. Bush. But if he really means what he says about opportunity and ownership giving everyone "a bigger stake in the future of the country" there is no better place to start than those millions of Americans who are intellectually and physically disabled.

Read about the author of this article, Al Hunt

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Copyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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