Long ago we decided as a society that the mentally retarded are people too. But our public policy doesn't yet fully reflect the fact that, as people, they have the same aspirations as the rest of us -- namely, to work, to save, to have as much control as is possible over their own lives.
In a new report, The President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities issues a call to change federal programs to accommodate this reality. ("Intellectual disabilities" is the state-of-the-art term, because "retard" and "retarded" have so long been used as insults.) The drive that the intellectually disabled have to work is obvious to anyone who knows them. "They're just thrilled when they get a job," says Madeleine Will, chairperson of the committee. "They want the things the rest of us want."
But the array of government programs for the intellectually disabled assumes that they can never be employed. Improvements during the past 30 years in special education and in health care make this less true than ever. "We don't have low expectations for the disabled when it comes to work," says Tom Nerney, director of the Center for Self-Determination, "we have no expectations."
What the president's committee essentially recommends is bringing the welfare-reform revolution to a new class of people. Just as archaic, well-intentioned, but misbegotten programs caught inner-city women in dependency, outdated programs for the disabled make them wards of the state. Reformers want to bring some of the principles of President George Bush's "ownership society" -- individual choice, flexibility, asset accumulation -- to bear on the programs for the disabled.
Supplemental Security Insurance, for instance, is a trap. The disabled rely on it heavily, even though it provides a relative pittance. The program hasn't been indexed for inflation since its creation in the 1970s. But supplementing SSI with work income is almost impossible. Under SSI, a recipient begins to lose $1 for every $2 earned once he makes just $65 a month. He can't have more than $2,000 in savings. The thrust of the program is to keep recipients dependent, in what Nerney calls a policy of "forced impoverishment."