Sworn in on January 20th, 2009, President Obama and his administration are now getting down to the business of running the country. But what could this change in our government mean for people with disabilities, and particularly people with visual impairments? The following is a compilation of a few important issues that President Obama discussed over the course of his campaign.
Important Federal Policies
President Obama stated during the campaign that he would renew America's investment in the National Institute of Health which funds the National Eye Institute, vowed to address the issue of employment for people with a disability, and protect and strengthen federal disability laws.
The National Institute for Health's (NIH) budget has been under-funded since 2003. President Obama has stated he intends to increase funding for NIH so that the United States can adequately conduct research that will lead to medical breakthroughs in all fields, including eye research.
The National Eye Institute (NEI) is the lead federal agency charged with the duty of protecting and prolonging the vision of the American people. It has provided thousands of research grants to institutions throughout the United States that have lead to important discoveries of certain causes of eye diseases and improved treatments. Full funding of the NEI is essential for future medical breakthroughs and will lead to the enhancement of vision care for everyone.
Increasing Employment Rates
Employment rates among people with disabilities are substantially lower than people without disabilities. The same holds true in regards to compensation, with people with disabilities making significantly less money than people without a disability. President Obama plans to increase employment rates of people with disabilities by issuing an executive order that mandates the hiring of an additional 100,000 federal employees with disabilities over the next five years.
He also plans to enforce Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that requires employers who are federal contractors "to take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment qualified individuals with disabilities." President Obama also plans to expand business opportunity for people with disabilities by amending regulations under the Small Business Act that provide preference in federal contacting to small businesses owned by members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups to include individuals with disabilities.
Federal Disability Laws
Recent court rulings restricted the definition of "disability" and impacted many people with chronic conditions, including diabetes. Such rulings ran counter to the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act and in September 2008 Congress passed the ADA Restoration Act which expanded the definition of workplace accommodations and the definition of "disability". As a Senator, President Obama voted in favor of this act and has said that he will be in favor of similar methods that strengthen and protect the rights of people with disabilities.
Voting rights for people with disabilities is a priority for President Obama. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was designed to expand voting accessibility, but unfortunately has not been fully implemented. President Obama intends to fully fund this act that will allow voters with a visual impairment the opportunity to cast their vote independently.
The following are two important, pending pieces of legislation in the Senate supported by President Obama that impact people with a disability:
Community Choice Act
President Obama and Vice President Biden are both co-sponsors of the Community Choice Act, which allows people with significant disabilities the choice of living in their community, rather than having to live in a nursing home or other institution. This legislation seeks to expand direct care services and would provide people with disabilities greater access to quality in-home care.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
As a candidate President Obama's support of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) would provide important federal funding to states for the education of children with disabilities. The federal government has long provided each state with 40% of the states "excess cost" of educating children with disabilities. Recent federal funding levels have been less than the required 40% and have left the education of children with disabilities insufficiently funded. This additional funding will provide every student with a disability access to a public education and allow parents to focus on their children, rather than arguing with school districts to make sure that their child is getting the education they are entitled.
President Obama has also vowed to invest $10 billion per year in early intervention programs for children between zero and five. Increasing funding will provide greater access to important programs for children with disabilities to ensure that children with disabilities do not fall behind their peers.
These are just a few of the important policy proposals and legislation supported by President Obama. Current economic conditions will certainly determine both the speed to which the aforementioned policies are implemented and, ultimately, whether pursued at all.