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Professors see role for Pitt in Bush plan for rehabilitation research centers

Saturday, June 17, 2000

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Presidential campaign proposals are usually as steadfast as sea foam, but the five-year, $880 million plan proposed Thursday by Texas Gov. George W. Bush for disabled Americans has stirred excitement at the University of Pittsburgh, even if the school's innovative rehabilitation research center never sees a dime.

The proposal would expand disabled people's opportunities in education, the work force and their communities, and cover everything from rental vouchers to assistive technology to matching funds for businesses buying telecommuting equipment for disabled employees.

"I'm hoping what it means is that George W. Bush and his staff have realized that you really want people with disabilities to be included in the community and to be employed," said Rory Cooper, a professor and chairman of the department of rehabilitation science and technology in Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Services.

There are an estimated 54 million disabled Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 17 million of them are of working age. Yet, less than a third are employed.

Under Bush's proposal, federal funding would triple for assistive technology, from $11 million to $33 million. Included would be funding to the country's 15 rehabilitative engineering research centers -- including one at Pitt -- where some of the country's breakthrough research into wheeled mobility and seating occurs. The centers receive federal funding through the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitative Research.

Clifford E. Brubaker, dean of Pitt's health and rehabilitation sciences school, which oversees the research center, cautioned that any increased funding was dependent on several big "ifs," the biggest of which is whether or not Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, gets elected. Then, Congress would have to authorize the money and fund the programs, and a few years down the road, decide whether or not to renew them.

If it did happen, Brubaker and Cooper said it would enable Pitt's center to train more scientists, provide more rehabilitation research capacity, facilitate more clinical trials in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology, and speed clinical research results into clinical practice.

"We would be able to mount a more comprehensive and extensive effort," Brubaker said.

Other aspects of Bush's proposal include providing $8 million in funding to remove barriers that now prevent technology from reaching disabled Americans; increasing low-interest funding from $4 million to $40 million to help disabled citizens afford the life-altering equipment created by the rehabilitation research centers; providing $20 million to help disabled Americans work from home; and creating a national commission on mental health.

Bush's proposal draws heavily on several federal programs already on the books, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act signed in 1990 by his father, former President George Bush.

Vice President Al Gore made a proposal similar to Bush's -- with fewer specifics -- at a January speech in New Hampshire.

Both Brubaker and Cooper said that although improving the lifestyle of disabled people is a bipartisan issue, they realize the politics inherent in both presidential candidates' proposals.

"They both pander to whomever will vote for them," Brubaker said.

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