Standing by the handicapped

The Reagan administration is currently drafting guidelines to alter the basic federal civil rights law relating to 35 million Americans that for one reason or other are considered handicapped. Groups representing the handicapped argue that the administration's intent is to gut the existing federal regulation, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and turn the ''handicapped issue'' back to the states. The administration counters that it is trying to curb soaring costs for the federal government and for municipalities and institutions that must, for example, buy special buses, install access ramps, or provide ''appropriate schooling'' for all students.

Although the administration has yet to release its formal recommendations - they are expected in several weeks - enough is now known to express some concerns about both the tone and long-range impact of the proposed changes. The administration last year signaled its own priorities when it tried to abolish the main federal board dealing with the handicapped. Congress refused. The administration then unsuccessfully sought to withhold funds from the board, a step it is still urging in the present budget discussion.

One proposal reportedly under consideration would apply the federal law involving the handicapped only to specific programs receiving federal funds. Currently, federal handicapped guidelines apply to all institutions or agencies receiving such funds. Other proposals would reportedly drop the act's civil rights coverage for elementary and secondary schools, arguing that school children are covered by other legislation; also, omit any references to discrimination in private employment.

The reason for enactment of the Rehabilitation Act, it might be recalled, was to help bring handicapped persons into the social mainstream where they could produce goods and services, earn a livelihood, pay taxes, and in effect end a costly and self-defeating dependency on federal welfare programs.

Much progress has been made in providing services for the handicapped since that time, and caution should be exercised to prevent eroding such help. That is not to say that economic considerations should not be intelligently applied to matters involving the handicapped; there no doubt is a limit to what communities and institutions can reasonably be expected to do.

But why, given the fact that comprehensive federal protections for the handicapped are really so new, is there such an urgency to limit their scope?

Would it not be better to tackle the issue with deliberation, by, for example , establishing a national commission involving persons with disabilities as well as state and local officials to study the question?

The objective, after all, should be to aid the handicapped to make a useful contribution to society. This is not only good public policy and politics, but cost-efficient as well.

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