Let's remove barriers from path of the handicapped

John Dillon is an achiever. This teen-ager, who just graduated from a south-of-Boston high school, was elected to the National Honor Society. He maintained an overall B-plus average, worked on the yearbook staff, and earned letters on the basketball and soccer teams.

Good, but not remarkable? Actually, fairly remarkable. John is deaf. This teen-ager was one of 10 hearing-impaired graduating seniors in his school who took part in a new ''parallel paths'' program in cooperation with the Boston School for the Deaf. Most are excellent students and plan to go on to college. Dillon expects to study engineering.

Up to a decade ago, the bulk of America's estimated 31 million physically and mentally handicapped had to limit their aspirations. The Helen Kellers were few and far between. Today, that has begun to change. Educational and job opportunities have been significantly broadened as a result of sweeping federal legislation which forbids discrimination against the disabled. Notable gains have been made particularly in the legal, medical, and scientific areas. For instance, blind lawyers at the US Department of Justice use specially adapted ''talking'' computer terminals to gain access to banks of legal data; an increasing number of deaf students are attending dental school; and quadriplegics are pursuing medical studies. Many of the handicapped are entering these professions. A few have already gained national prominence in their fields.

The emergence of the disabled into mainstream society has come largely as a result of hard-fought but little publicized ''equal rights'' battles. As a result, laws were changed to provide better learning and jobs access to the handicapped. And, most important, public attitudes started to focus on achievement and potential rather than on limitation and burden.

This was a good start. Advances must continue. Existing legislation should be uniformly enforced to bolster the disabled. New laws should more clearly spell out entitlements. And government officials must be made aware that in most cases the outlay of federal dollars in programs for the handicapped is a solid investment.

Over a 10-year period, 1968 to '78, a string of federal laws to aid the handicapped required, among other things, that public buildings have ramps and easily accessible walkways; states provide help for the disabled as a condition for receiving mass-transit money; federal agencies adopt affirmative-action programs for hiring and promoting the handicapped; schools assure children with physical or mental limitations a free education in the ''least restrictive setting'' possible; and federally supported housing be made more readily available to those with special needs.

But today, in a cost-conscious economy, retrenchment is in the wind. President Reagan and others insist that expansive federal programs are discouraging initiative on the part of the disabled. At the same time, local schools have complained that the costs of providing public education to the handicapped often place an excessive burden on taxpayers. And industry has raised similar questions regarding money spent for special facilities and equipment for the disabled.

A major conflict swirls around the schools and just how far they must go in providing services for youngsters with special needs. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975 mandates ''free appropriate public education'' for all disabled children. Some estimates say this puts an extra $12 billion burden on the nation's schools.

A case now before the US Supreme Court raises the issue of whether local districts are required to provide medically related services to handicapped youngsters under EAHCA. If the court should decide that this is unnecessary, many disabled youngsters could drop out of public school and be placed in alternative learning settings where their specific needs could be met better. Last year, in another case, the high court endorsed the concept of ''mainstreaming'' (educating handicapped youngsters in classrooms along with nonhandicapped) in ruling that a deaf child was not entitled to a publicly funded, out-of-school sign language interpreter.

Some studies by industry and the Department of Labor challenge the charge that accommodating the handicapped in the workplace is unduly expensive. And a Du Pont survey of job efficiency concludes that ''the performance of handicapped employees is equivalent to that of their non-impaired co-workers.''

These controversies will doubtless remain with us. And in this era of limits, it's likely that some public funds will be pulled back from handicapped programs , at least for a time. If they are, the decisions must be made judiciously and compassionately - and only after careful study.

It should be obvious that the last thing the disabled want is pity. What they do want is to be given the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This is their right. It's also society's opportunity. And it's vital to a basic objective - rehabilitation and healing.

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