New Freedom Initiative: Survival of the Fittest ÒEqualityÓ

Marta Russell


his New Freedom Initiative (NFI), President George W. Bush pronounced “my

Administration is committed to tearing down the barriers to equality that face

many of the 54 million Americans with disabilities.”


feel-good “equality” and “freedom” speech W. delivered was well

received, even by liberals like Ted Kennedy. Bobby Silverstein, a key staffer on

the congressional Disability subcommittee spearheaded by Senator Tom Harkin,

reportedly remarked “you could take NFI, switch around the order, sign

Harkin’s name and not know the difference.”


has been a bipartisan issue in Washington politics largely because it is

nonthreatening to either party. Both parties have found ways to use it to fit

their agenda. The GOP can put the emphasis on empowerment and ending dependency

on government entitlements while the Democrats can focus on civil rights and

equal opportunity — both parties get political mileage for it. That doesn’t

mean that the disability movement has made substantial gains, however,

especially when it comes to income equality.


Poll surveys commissioned by the National Organization on Disability over the

past decade since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, for

instance, have found persistent gaps in employment, education, voting and

political participation, and in involvement in community, social and religious

life, between disabled persons and other Americans. Despite a record expansion

of the economy and an overall low official unemployment rate, only a third of

working age disabled individuals are currently employed, compared to more than

80% of the nondisabled. Disabled persons also are twice as likely not to finish

high school (22 versus 9%). A far higher percentage live in households that are

below the poverty level (29 versus 10%), and a similarly disproportionate number

report not having adequate access to health care (28 versus 12%) or

transportation (30 versus 10%). (2000 N.O.D./Harris Survey of Americans with



persons have suffered from watered-down legislation and middle-of-the-road

approaches which satisfy both political parties, don’t accomplish much in the

way of equality of results and keep us as vulnerable as ever to the capitalist

economy. Mostly disabled peoples’ advancement has suffered from both the New

Democrats and GOP’s unwillingness to address the relationship between

“equality” and redistribution.


states in the NFI, for instance, that new technologies like text telephones for

those with hearing impairments; computer monitors with braille displays for

those with visual impairments; infrared pointers for people who cannot use their

hands, allowing them to operate computers by pointing at functions on the

monitor or the keyboard; lighter wheelchairs; lighter artificial limbs, are

essential to disabled people’s participation.


modern wonders make the world more accessible, yet they are often inaccessible

to people who need but cannot afford them,” says W.


what does W. propose to remedy this situation? He is asking Congress to create a

new fund – a federal investment – that would go directly to rehabilitation

centers and businesses to develop and produce such equipment. Here is the

clincher: these organizations will get money to pay staff and develop products

while disabled people who absolutley need them will have to purchase the

equipment by taking out low-interest loans. The developers get the government

money outright, while the disabled person must pay for the product they produce

using taxpayer dollars.


we examine W.’s remedy from the standpoint of equality, it becomes clear that

equality is entirely avoided here. For instance, the National Council on

Disability has noted “for Americans without disabilities, technology makes

things easier. For Americans with disabilities, technology makes things



other words, it is necessary from the get-go for a disabled person to have this

technology in order to function. Assistive technology is an expense on top of

and beyond what a nondisabled person must make to accomplish similar tasks. To

fulfill any notion of “equality” would require taking into account this

difference. As the economist Amarta Sen has explained, a disabled person will

not extract the same benefit from a given bundle of resources as someone who

does not have a functional disadvantage. For equality to exist in this

particular situation, the disabled person *must* have the technology to

experience any freedom, it is not optional, yet W.’s New Freedom Initiative

would make their freedom contingent upon being able to take out a loan and pay

for it themselves.


how likely is it that disabled persons who have been surviving on the average

Social Security benefits (for SSI it is $372 per month, for SSDI, $786) will be

in the position to risk taking out a loan with no guarantee of a job? Further,

how can a disabled person without the assistive technology be job-ready? 

The devices take a learning curve to master them before they can be exploited by

employers. Moreover, disabled persons need access to this equipment regardless

of whether they will ever become a worker.


cuts to the quick of the neo-liberal and Third Way politics which have placed

all the emphasis on ending dependency and increasing productivity without any

attention to equality of income which is directly tied into the freedom to live

one type of life or another. Both replace redistributive (egalitarian) goals

with a market approach; both adopt the supply-side theory that the economy is

burdened by rigid labor markets, powerful trade unions, and overly-generous

welfare provisions. In an era of flexible accumulation as demanded by the

corporations government has shifted its top priority to justifying expenditures

only if they address human capital development (early education, job training,

vocational pursuit) which feeds into the so-called new economy, i.e., if it

suits business needs. The Third Way melding of a left and right mantra is

“rights and responsibility” capped off with the agreement so stated by

Clinton, that the “era of big government is over.” It follows that there is

a keen government interest in programs that target the long-term unemployed and

disadvantaged for employment.


we hear W. tell disabled persons in his NFI speech that "too many Americans

with disabilities remain trapped in bureaucracies of dependence." Where

have we heard that before? In 1996, right before the passage of welfare

“reform,” the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation

Act (PRWORA). In order to reduce the “dependency” of mothers on government

benefits and to feed more low wage workers into the labor-shortaged economy,

Clinton (in typical triangulation strategy of keeping in step with the GOP),

ended welfare as we know it by eliminating the poor women’s entitlement to a

social safety net from the Social Security Act.


however, did not find an expanded benefits or services program that would lift

them out of poverty in the PRWORA, but faced a termination of benefits without

any guarantee of a job, much less a living wage job with health care and

benefits. A Wisconsin study of the Tommy Thompson (now Secretary of Health &

Human Services) welfare reform transition period conducted by John Pawasarat of

the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, found 75% of those hired lost their

jobs within nine months. Only 28% sustained projected annual earnings of $10,000

for two consecutive quarters and such work was often part-time, low-paying and

quick to end. When the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Coalition for

the Homeless reevaluated the status of former welfare recipients in 1998, they

found that only about 50% to 60% of those who leave welfare were working and

those who work typically earn less than $250 per week – too little to lift a

family out of poverty.


readers believe that disabled persons are somehow immune from similar tactics

and treatment consider that Jonathan Young, celebrated disability liaison for

the Clinton administration, regularly disparaged the “cycle of dependency”

which he applied to both welfare and disability programs like the Return to Work

program. Clinton’s counterpart in Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has

gone further in England. “New policies to offer unemployed people jobs and

training are a social democratic priority — but we also expect everyone to take

up the opportunity offered,” says Blair.


remarks were soon followed with a notice from British officials telling disabled

persons to seek work or lose benefits. The Independent reported “Sick and

disabled people who refuse to look for work will face the withdrawal of their

state benefits under a tough new government drive to slash "welfare



W. intones the negatives of bureaucracies, he will not be aiming to fix them as

might serve disabled persons’ long standing inequality nor will he be focused

on acheiving an equality of results. His allegiance is to the powerful elite who

put him in office and the trend is clearly towards further cutting, if not

ending, entitlements.


proposal to revamp Social Security by creating individual investment accounts,

for instance, would be a backdoor way to do just that. The new study, by the

General Accounting Office concludes that "even under the best of

circumstances, W.’s Social Security reform proposals would reduce benefits for

disabled persons. For a worker with average earnings who first receives

disability benefits at the age of 45, the reduction in lifetime benefits would

be in the range of 4% to 18%. (The average benefit for disabled workers is now

$786 a month).


NFI does not mention alleviating the poverty of those trying to struggle on SSDI

or SSI below-poverty checks. As one activist in Southern California put it

“SSI pays people just enough to scrape by on, unless of course you are a crip,

in which case everything you need to live is so expensive you can’t live on



does not address daily problems disabled persons face dealing with Medicaid

(which is cutting back what it will pay for all the time) nor access to an

attendant (a grossly underpaid job that no one wants) nor Medicare (which has

never been designed to provide services of the type disabled persons need). By

omitting such realities, NFI is more useless talk about "freedom" in a

country where people’s material needs do not get met.


NFI ignores the power relations of employment. The duty to become employed rests

entirely on the back of the disabled individual whose labor power is not often

perceived as equal by employers under the simplistic banner of “equal

employment opportunity.” Under NFI, private employers have no obligation to

hire disabled workers, rather it’s a purely voluntary situation. Without

affirmative action or requirements on employers to hire disabled workers – a

minor effort at interventionism that might produce greater equality of results -

will the barriers disabled people face be "torn down"?


W. has said the country is in a recession. If he is correct, that not only means

fewer jobs but traditionally disabled persons have been the first to loose their

jobs when the economy turns sour. How does “personal responsibility” work

into that scenario? Unemployment is not an aberration but a permanent condition

of capitalist economies. How do “personal responsibility” and “rights”

fit into that systemic reality?  There is no right to a job. Without a

government effort towards job creation, will the barriers disabled people face

be "torn down" the next four years?


version of “freedom” and “equality” in the capitalist context is not

redeemable. The fact that some bourgeois disabled persons think it is a step

forward is a shame. But then, the bourgeois of all races, genders, ages and

disabililities have usually gone along with the survival-of-the-fittest type

“equality” and “freedom” the NFI represents.


the neo-liberals and Third Way politicos have been convinced they have done all

they can do to help the disadvantaged seize their “opportunities” and become

“independent and productive” as W. puts it the mood is likely to shift to

blaming those disabled persons left on entitlement programs for their individual

failure to make the grade — all the more reason to shave benefits to induce

more incentives to the recalcitrant to get a job (regardless of the fact that

there will not ever be enough jobs because unemployment is a built-in component

of capitalism). Or, as with the welfare population, government may force

disabled persons into workfare programs where they must show up at designated

work spots in order to continue to receive their benefit checks.


disabled peoples oppression — which is a direct result of the relations of

production in a capitalist economy — requires addressing egalitarian principles

of redistributive justice first. It takes economic equality to produce social

equality.  Economic equality is something which data clearly shows has not

materialized in America, not just for disabled persons but for the majority of



Russell is author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social

Contract. http://disweb.org/


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