Toward Independence Report Issued: A Precursor to the ADA

Before the ADA There was the Toward Independence Report

Four years prior to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a report called Toward Independence was issued by the National Council on Disability (NCD), based in Washington D.C. The Council is comprised of roughly a dozen council members, and led and supported by an Executive Director, legislative and administrative support staff. The NCD is an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities.

As described on its website, the NCD works to fulfill its mission by NCD fulfills its advisory roles regarding disability policies, programs, procedures, and practices that enhance equal opportunity by:

  • Convening stakeholders to acquire timely and relevant input for recommendations and action steps

  • Gathering and analyzing data and other information

  • Engaging and influencing current debates and agendas

  • Identifying and formulating solutions to emerging and long-standing challenges; and

  • Providing tools to facilitate effective implementation

At the time of its issuance in 1986, Toward Independence was developed in response to a specific statutory mandate that the Council:

Assess the extent to which [Federal] programs provide incentives or disincentives to the establishment of community-based services for handicapped individuals, promote the full integration of such individuals in the community, in schools, and in the workplace, and contribute to the independence and dignity of such individuals ... [and] recommend to the President and Congress legislative proposals for increasing incentives and eliminating disincentives in Federal programs based on the assessment made... (Public Law No. 98-221, Section 401a)

The Council developed the report in consultation with knowledgeable persons with disabilities and experts on disability service programs throughout the country, as well as a list of major Federal programs serving individuals with disabilities, ranked according to expenditures, with an estimated number of persons with disabilities served. From its analysis of such information at the time, the Council drew three general conclusions:

  1. Approximately two-thirds of working-age persons with disabilities do not receive Social Security or other public assistance income.

  2. Federal disability programs reflect an overemphasis on income support and an underemphasis of initiatives for equal opportunity, independence, prevention, and self-sufficiency.

  3. More emphasis should be given to Federal programs encouraging and assisting private sector efforts to promote opportunities and independence for individuals with disabilities.

From my perspective, one of the things that made Toward Independence so remarkable, is that it was one of the first government policy documents to establish in its beginning premise the assertion that disability is largely a social construct. Meaning, that it is the economic, employment, physical and social barriers that define one’s disability, not an “inability” of an individual to pursue their lifes’ desires or destiny.

It states: A major difference between persons with disabilities and other individuals is the number, degree, and complexity of the barriers they face in trying to achieve their personal goals and fulfillment. Some of these barriers result from the disabilities themselves-a disability may be considered to be the lack of some mental, physical, or emotional "tool" which most other people can call upon in addressing life's tasks…. But whatever the limitations associated with particular disabilities, people with disabilities have been saying for years that their major obstacles are not inherent in their disabilities, but arise from barriers that have been imposed externally and unnecessarily. 

With all of its context of idealistic social integration, however, the NCD knew who their target audience was: budget-minded legislators and federal policy makers who were at the time, (and I would argue still are) always looking for ways to keep the costs of services for the disabled as low as possible. Therefore, the incentive for pragmatic approaches to helping disabled people be as independent, self-sufficient, and employable, as possible, was a key focus and purpose of the overall report.

As its author’s keenly noted at the time: As detailed subsequently in this report, our Nation's current annual Federal expenditure on disability benefits and programs is more than $60 billion. Overall Federal spending associated with disability can be expected to mushroom as the "baby boom" generation grows older and age-related disabilities increase. The present and future costs of disability to our nation are directly related to the degree of success we attain in reducing existing barriers, both structural and attitudinal, and in providing appropriate services to individuals with disabilities so that they may realize their full potential and become more independent and self-sufficient. If we are unsuccessful, dependency will increase and be accompanied by increasing costs for services and care as they become more custodial in nature. The time is ripe for a careful assessment of disability-related expenditures and programs to see how effective they are in enhancing independence and equality of opportunity for people with disabilities. To this end, Congress has directed the National Council on the Handicapped to assess the extent to which Federal programs serving people with disabilities.

In 2015, the Congressional Budget Office cited that the Federal expenditure on SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) alone was $143 billion, or about 0.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), in benefits to almost 9 million disabled beneficiaries and about 2 million of those beneficiaries’ spouses and children. This does not include costs of Medicare, Medicaid or other disability programs. They note that costs will continue to rise with time, and indeed, they have.

The work that the NCD did when writing Toward Independence provided a researched and persuasive argument for why this country needed the Americans With Disabilities Act. It stressed the need to reduce barriers and provide appropriate services so individuals with disabilities can “realize their full potential and become more independent and self-sufficient.” Appropriately so, the Council introduced the first version of the ADA in 1988.

NCD’s work continues today. To read a copy of their 2017 progress report, you can download it HERE. Included in it are very important legislative recommendations that address solutions for more inclusion and equality for disabled people in employment, transportation, economic self-sufficiency, and community-based supports.

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