WORDS WITH THE PRESIDENT an interview by Chet Cooper

President ClintonABILITY Magazine provides you with a virtual seat in the oval office, asking America’s highest state official about what he sees as the future of people with disabilities within the growing US economy.

Chet Cooper: Under the present Social Security System, disability is determined by a 5-step process. The claimant must have no substantial gainful activity. Many people view this as being penalized for trying to work. What do you think of this situation?

President Clinton: It is clear that people with disabilities face a variety of complex barriers to work. This needs to change. My 1998 budget proposal includes three initiatives designed to help people with disabilities, who are eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), to work. First, it proposes a new state option that would allow SSI beneficiaries with disabilities to earn more than state-set caps while keeping Medicaid by contributing to the cost of their coverage as their income rises.

Second, it authorizes a four-year demonstration to encourage SSDI beneficiaries to return to work by helping certain beneficiaries who have exhausted their coverage be eligible for up to four additional years of premium-free Part A coverage. And third, it proposes a new pilot that would reward SSDI and SSI providers for results rather than for their costs, encouraging them to have a continuing interest in their clients’ long term success, which, hopefully, would mean more beneficiaries would be returning to work.

Cooper: Could you describe the attitudinal changes in yourself from your temporary disability?

Clinton: My accident has been a very enlightening and humbling experience. I’ve gained first hand knowledge of the challenges faced by people with disabilities. It’s made me understand that those of us who have full use of our physical faculties owe an enormous amount of respect and sensitivity to people who don’t.

Cooper: The only other President in a wheelchair was President Roosevelt. At the 49th conference of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, you closed your speech with the statement, "I hope that as the Roosevelt Memorial becomes a reality, they’ll find a way to make sure that the American people know that this great, great president was great with his disability." Did you think of President Roosevelt during the time you used a wheelchair?

Clinton: Yes, I’ve thought about President Roosevelt a great deal since my accident. In fact, I occasionally joke with people that, because of all the thinking and reading I’ve done on FDR, I sometimes feel as if I’m talking to him, instead of Hillary talking to Eleanor. One of the issues I’ve thought about, is whether Roosevelt would want himself depicted in a wheelchair in his memorial. I believe he would. He would want to emphasize the significant progress America has made in its attitudes towards disabilities, just as he wanted us to be proud of progress in every one. He would want this to be a living memorial—a memorial that helps America move into the future, by showing people what he did and who he was.

Cooper: What progress has been made to increase the number of employed persons with disabilities?

Clinton: The success of our economy, especially as we move towards the 21st century, depends on the depth of our values and the strength of our diversity. We don’t have a person to waste. This means inclusion, not exclusion. Over the past four years, the Administration has worked hard to increase such inclusion by vigorously enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act. And we have made progress. According to the Census Bureau, the employment rate for persons with severe disabilities increased by 27% from 1991 to 1994. That’s approximately 800,000 more disabled people working in 1994. While this rate is still far too low, it is heartening to see that our efforts are beginning to have an effect.

Clinton in white house office in wheelchair with Vice President Gore and two guests.Cooper: A large percentage of minorities with disabilities drop out of school. What can be done to ensure that their talents will not be wasted?

Clinton: The best way to help our young people with disabilities is to encourage them to stay in school and to strengthen the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For more than 20 years, the IDEA has guaranteed free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities. Today, it helps more than 5.7 million students across the U.S. reach their full potential. High school graduates with disabilities under IDEA have achieved an employment rate twice that of the overall population of individuals with disabilities. Now we are building on the past success of IDEA. I recently reached a significant agreement with Congress to reauthorize the IDEA. The new reauthorization legislation strengthens and reaffirms our commitment to disabled children and their parents by emphasizing educational results and by providing better support for parents.

Cooper: The preservation of Medicaid coverage and the availability of insurance to those Americans with a pre-existing condition remains unstable. Many employers view people with disabilities as an increase to their insurance costs. What can be done to secure affordable insurance to employers who hire people with disabilities?

President Clinton saying "hi" to child in weelchair while smiling female doctor looks on.Clinton: I refuse to go backwards on health care coverage for Americans with disabilities, and I have worked hard to ensure that this does not happen. I vetoed proposals that would have ended Medicaid’s guarantee of meaningful health benefits to 6 million people with disabilities, including 1 million children. I signed the Kennedy-Kassebaum health insurance reform bill to strengthen the health security of people with disabilities and all Americans. And, I supported greater flexibility in granting state waivers. As a result, the number of people with developmental or cognitive disabilities served in home and community waiver programs more than doubled in 1995, to 149,000.

Cooper: In 1992, you issued a challenge to our nation to establish a national disability policy based upon three simple creeds: inclusion, not exclusion; independence, not dependence; and empowerment, not paternalism. How close are we to achieving such a policy?

Clinton: More than ever before, America’s greatness depends on the ability of its citizens to make the most of their lives. Americans with disabilities are an enormous, often untapped reservoir of that potential. Although we are achieving a greater national awareness and sensitivity towards the issues and needs of this community, it is clear that much work remains to be done. Our work will not be finished until all people including those with disabilities are full, active members of their communities, able to pursue their dreams, and able to obtain the support they need to do so.

....continued in ABILITY Magazine

More stories from President Clinton issue:

50 years with the ADA

Aroma Therapy, Part I