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STATEMENT OF SENATOR EDWARD M. KENNEDY ON THE PASSAGE OF THE TICKET TO WORK AND WORK INCENTIVES IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 1999
NOVEMBER 19, 1999

"Today, Congress will complete action on the Ticket to Work and work Incentives Improvement Act, and this important legislation will go at long last to the White House. When President Clinton signs this bill into law, he will truly be signing a modern Declaration of Independence for millions of men and women with disabilities in communities across the country who will have a priceless new opportunity to fulfill their hopes and dreams of living independent and productive lives.

We know how far we have come in the ongoing battle over many decades to ensure that people with disabilities have the independence they need to be participating members of their communities.

Sixty-seven years ago this month we elected a disabled American for the highest office in the land. He became one of our greatest Presidents, but Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled by the prevailing attitudes of his times to conceal his disability as much as possible. The World War II Generation began to change all that. The 1950s showed the nation a new class of people -- people with disabilities -- as veterans returned from war to an inaccessible society. Each decade since then has brought significant progress.

In the 1960s, Congress responded with new architectural standards, so we could build a society that everyone could be a part of.

The 1970s convinced us that full participation in society was needed not only for disabled veterans, but for disabled children and family members, and for those injured in everyday accidents. Congress responded with a range of federally funded programs which improved the lives of people with mental retardation, supported the rights of children with disabilities to go to school, ensured the right of people with disabilities to vote, and gave people with disabilities greater access to health care.

The 1980s brought a new realization that when we are talking about assisting people with disabilities, we must not look only to federal programs, but to the private sector as well. Congress again responded by guaranteeing fair housing opportunities for people with disabilities, by ensuring access to air travel, and making telecommunication advances available for people who are hard of hearing or deaf.

The 1990s brought us the Americans with Disabilities Act, which promised every disabled citizen a new and better life, in which disability would no longer put an end to the American dream.

But too often, for too many Americans, the promise of the ADA has been unfulfilled. Now, with this legislation, we will finally link civil rights clearly with health care. It isn't civil and it isn't right to send a person to work without the health care they need and deserve.

As Bob Dole stated in his eloquent testimony to the Finance Committee earlier this year, this issue is about people going to work "it is about dignity and opportunity and all the things we talk about, when we talk about being an American."

Millions of disabled men and women in this country want to work and are able to work. But they have been denied the opportunity to work because they lack access to needed health care. As a result, the nation has been denied their talents and their contributions to our communities.

Current laws are an anachronism. Modern medicine and modern technology make it easier than ever before for disabled persons to have productive lives and careers. Current laws are often a greater obstacle to that goal than their disability itself. It's ridiculous that we punish disabled persons who dare to take a job by penalizing them financially, by taking away their health insurance lifeline, and by placing other unfair obstacles in their path.

Currently, there are approximately 9 million working-age adults who receive disability benefits, many of whom could take jobs if they could keep their governmentally financed health benefits. A national survey earlier this year showed that, while 76 percent of people with disabilities wanted to work, nearly 75 percent are unemployed. Currently, only of 1% leave the disability roles to return to work.

Disability groups have estimated that about 2 million of the 8 million would consider forgoing disability payments and take jobs as a result of this legislation.

The estimated cost of this new program would be recouped if only 70,000 people leave the disability benefit roles. If 210,000 of them take jobs, the government would actually save $1billion annually in disability payments.

That 210,000 constitutes only 10% of the number of people who the disability community believe will avail themselves of this program. If their estimates are even close to accurate, the savings to the federal government could eventually $10 billion per year.

Today is a new beginning for persons with disabilities in their pursuit of the American dream.

This bill corrects the injustice they have unfairly suffered.

The Work Incentives Improvement Act removes these unfair barriers to work that face so many Americans with disabilities:

It makes health insurance available and affordable when a disabled person goes to work, or develops a significant disability while working.

It gives people with disabilities greater access to the services they need to become successfully employed.

It phases out the loss of cash benefits as income rises, instead of the unfair sudden cut-off that workers with disabilities face today.

It places work incentive planners in communities, rather than in bureaucracies, to help workers with disabilities learn how to obtain the employment services and support they need.

Many leaders in communities throughout the country have worked long and hard and well to help us reach this milestone. They are consumers, family members, citizens, and advocates. They showed us how current job programs for people with disabilities are failing them and forcing them into poverty.

We have worked together for many months to develop effective ways to right these wrongs. And to all of them I say, thank you for helping us to achieve this needed legislation. It truly represents legislation of the people, by the people and for the people. It is all of you who have been the fearless, tireless warriors for justice.

When we think of citizens with disabilities, we tend to think of men and women and children who are disabled from birth. But fewer than 15% of all people with disabilities are born with their disabilities. A bicycle accident or a serious fall or a serious illness can suddenly disable the healthiest and most physically able person.

In the long run, this legislation may be more important than any other action we have taken in this Congress. It offers a new and better life to large numbers of our fellow citizens. Disability need no longer end the American dream. That was the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act a decade ago, and this legislation dramatically strengthens our fulfillment of that promise.

This bill has a human face. It is for Alice in Oklahoma, who was disabled because of multiple sclerosis and receives SSDI benefits. She will now be able to get personal assistance to work and live in her community. No longer will she have to use all of her savings and half of her wages to pay for personal assistance and prescription drugs. No longer will she be left in poverty.

This bill is for Tammy in Indiana, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and works part-time at Wal-Mart. No longer will she be forced to restrict her hours of work. Her goal of becoming a productive citizen will no longer denied because now she will have access to the health care she needs.

This bill is for Abby in Massachusetts, who is six years old and has mental retardation. Her parents are very concerned about her future. Already, she has been denied coverage by two health insurance firms because of the diagnosis of mental retardation. Without Medicaid, her parents would be bankrupted by her current
medical bills. Now, when Abby enters the work force, she will not have to live in poverty or lose her Medicaid coverage. All that will change, and she will have a fair opportunity to work and prosper.

This bill is for many other citizens whose stories are told in this diary, called "A Day in the Life of a Person with a Disability."

Disabled people are not unable. Our goal in this legislation is to banish the stereotypes, to reform and improve existing disability programs, so that they genuinely encourage and support every disabled person's dream to work and live independently, and be a productive and contributing member of their community. That goal should be the birthright of all Americans and with this legislation, we are taking a giant step toward that goal.

A story from the debate on the Americans with Disabilities Act illustrates the point. A postmaster in a town was told that he must make his post office accessible. The building had 20 steep steps leading up to a revolving door at the only entrance. The postmaster questioned the need to make such costly repairs. He said, "I've been here for thirty-five years, and in all that time, I've yet to see a single customer come in here in a wheelchair." As the Americans with Disabilities Act has proved so well, if you build the ramp, they will come, and they will find their field of dreams. This bill builds new ramps, and vast numbers of the disabled will now come to work.

The road to economic prosperity and the right to a decent wage must be more accessible to all Americans no matter how many steps stand in the way. That is our goal in this legislation. It is the right thing to do, and it is the cost effective thing to do. And now we are finally doing it.

Eliminating these barriers to work will help disabled Americans to achieve self-sufficiency. We are a better and stronger and fairer country when we open the door of opportunity to all Americans, and enable them to be equal partners in the American dream. For millions of Americans with disabilities, this bill is a declaration of
independence that can make the American dream come true. Now, when we say "equal opportunity for all," it will be clear that we mean all.

No one in America should lose their medical coverage which can mean the difference between life and death if they go to work. No one in this country should have to choose between buying a decent meal
and buying the medication they need.

Nearly a year ago, President Clinton signed an executive order to increase employment and health care coverage for people with disabilities. Today, with strong bipartisan support, Congress is demonstrating its commitment to our fellow disabled citizens. But our work is far from done.

This bill is only the first step in the major reform of the Social Security disability programs that will enable individuals with disabilities to have the rights and privileges that all other Americans enjoy. 54 million Americans with disabilities are waiting for our action. We will not stop today, we will not stop tomorrow, we will not ever stop until America works for all Americans.

I especially commend President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Secretary Shalala, and many others in the Administration for their unwavering commitment and support in helping us to achieve the
bipartisan legislation that has brought us to this historic day. And John Podesta and Chris Jennings saw this through to the very end.

In addition, I commend Senator Jeffords, Senator Roth, and Senator Moynihan for their indispensable leadership on this landmark legislation. I also commend the many Senate staff members whose skilled assistance contributed so much to this achievement especially Jennifer Baxendale, Alec Vachon, and Frank Polk of Senator Roth's staff, Kristin Testa, John Resnick, Edwin Park, and David Podoff of Senator Moynihan's staff, Pat Morrissey, Lu Zeph, Chris Crowley, Jim Downing, and Mark Powden of Senator Jeffords' staff, and Connie Garner, Jim Manley, Jonathan Press, and Michael Myers of my own staff, and the many other staff members on the Health Committee and the Finance Committee who have been a critical part of the effort.

No longer will disabled Americans be left out and left behind. The Ticket to Work and the Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 is an act of courage, an act of community, and above all, an act of hope for the future."

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