Is there a backlash against legal rights for the handicapped?

By , Staff correspondent of The christian Science Monitor

Major legal rights gained by the handicapped in the 1970s are running into increasingly stiff opposition. Critics of programs for the handicapped do not deny that laws establishing such rights have led to much progress. Many thousands of disabled children who once received little intellectual stimulus now have been educated, often right alongside "normal" children. Many transit systems now accomodate persons in wheelchairs. Halfway houses and job training provide new hope for countless mentally disabled persons once locked away in wards of big, degrading institutions.

But:

* In these times of fiscal restraint, more and more parents and school administrators worry that, as large sums of money are spent to educate even the severely handicapped, normal children are being shortchanged.

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* Transit officials contend that they cannot afford a full overhaul of their bus and train systems to accomodate persons in wheelchairs.

* Homeowners worried about the values of their properties are fighting establishment in their neighborhoods of halfway houses for the mentally handicapped.

* Congress and the courts have been reexamining some of the laws establishing rights of the handicapped -- and finding them too broad.

"As we saw in civil rights, there's a point at which people begin to say 'enough is enough,'" says John Parry, editor of Medical Disability Law Reporter, which is sponsored by the American Bar Association.

"The '70s were quite a receptive time for the rights of the handicapped, says Mr. Parry. "The '80s," he predicts, "are going to be very, very lean years."

Given a likely tighteing up on government spending in many the chanllenge of the '80s on behalf of the handicapped, say others, will be in using decreasing funds creatively to help the most people.

Here is what is happening in three critical areas:

Education. The federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 calls for "a free appropriate public education" -- wherever possible alonside nonhandicapped children.

Much progress has been made, despite only partial funding of the law, according to a House of Representatives sub-committee that recently completed a review of compliance.

Advocates for the handicapped are calling for mroe funding and enforcement of the law. Neither seems likely, given money and personnel shortages.

An Illinois school administrator told the House review panel he is facing increasing resistance by teachers and parents of nonhandicapped and gifted children who feel that such children are not getting their fair share.

In July, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that profoundly retarded children have no US or state constitutional right to a free appropriate public education.

Transportation. A 1973 federal law calls for making the nation's mass transit systems accessible to persons in wheelchairs.

Some communities have equipped buses with lifts and modified train systems. But many more say they can not afford the changes.

The American Coaltion of Citizens with Disability seeks modified mass transit systems -- and, for the most severely handicapped, door-to-door bus service.

In December, Congress nearly passed a bill allowing a community to use either system. But John Williams, a spokesman for the coalition, is concerned that communities will opt for only the separate door-to-door system. He points out that often the user of such systems has to wait from a few hours to a few days for a ride. And often the ride is available only for limited destinations.

The American Public Transit Association (APTA) wants to give communities a choice of how to comply with the law. More people would benefit from a separate door-to-door system, says APTA's Helena Barnes. (Advocates for the handicap disputes this.)

Housing. In the 1970s, many mentally disabled and retarded persons were released from large institutions that, official said, were doing them little good. Halfway houses have been set up for many of these patients to help them readjust.

Laws to overcome use of local zoning ordinances against such houses have been passed in 19 states.

But earlier this year, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down that state's law. Residents in Canton and Akron had objected to proposed halfway houses.

Such resistance is based on unfounded fears, says Paul Freidman, director of the Mental Health Law Project in Washington.

Former mental patients are seldom dangerous or sexually promiscuous, he says. Also there is "no clear trend" of declining property values when such a house is opened in a neighborhood.

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