WASHINGTON - Borrowing from his father's legacy, President Bush rolled out a $1 billion package of new programs yesterday to give the 54 million Americans with disabilities a greater sense of freedom at home and in the workplace.
"We must speed up the day when the last barrier has been removed to full and independent lives for every American, with or without a disability," the president said at a White House ceremony.
He noted that his father, George H. W. Bush, had signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
"Eleven years after the ADA, we are a better country for it," Bush said.
"But there is more to do, and today I propose we move forward."
Bush's "New Freedom Initiative" - expected to cost about $1 billion over five years - includes funding for research into new technology, such as computers that can be operated by people with no use of their legs or arms.
There would also be money for a low-interest loan program to help citizens with disabilities purchase new technology that is developed.
Additionally, the plan would: offer states more money to educate students with disabilities; launch 10 federal projects aimed at developing better methods of transportation for those with disabilities; create a national commission on mental health; and fund organizations that are exempt from the ADA - such as churches, mosques and synagogues - to facilitate access.
The president told his guests, many of them in wheelchairs, how he walks each morning from his private residence to the Oval Office along a gently rising pathway that was renovated decades ago.
"It's been that way since they took out the steps, so that Franklin Roosevelt could make it to his place of work," Bush said.
"This house is among the first places in America to accommodate people with disabilities. And we have come a long way since the days when only a president could hope for that consideration."
Disability advocates were generally encouraged that Bush had turned to their issue in just his second week in office.
"Having the president address our concerns in such a comprehensive way early in his administration augurs well for the one-fifth of the population who live with disabilities," said Alan A. Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability.
Beatrice M. Rodgers, director of the Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities in Maryland, said she was "cautiously optimistic" about Bush's initiative.
"It has real potential," she said, but "there wasn't a whole lot of detail."
Rodgers said some of Bush's proposals are already in existence, such as a low-interest loan program to help citizens purchase special vans, scooters, computers or other "assistive" equipment.
Maryland, she said, received $500,000 from the federal government to help with one such program last year.
At yesterday's ceremony, Bush seated himself at a special short lectern made for speakers in wheelchairs, thus placing him at eye level with those in wheelchairs who flanked him on the stage.
The event drew top-ranking Democrats, among them Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Harkin said afterward that Bush had chosen to focus yesterday on an issue on which "I've never known any partisan debate."
"This is all wonderful," he said. "When we get to the budget, when we get to the details on Medicare, that's when the rubber hits the road."
Guests with disabilities
Bush took time before and after yesterday's event to greet his guests with disabilities, often recognizing them instantly and remembering their names from previous meetings, sometimes leaning down to kiss them on the cheek.
Joining him on the stage was Jim Mullen, a Chicago policeman wounded on duty in 1996 and now paralyzed from the neck down. Bush lingered in the room after his speech and had a playful conversation with Mullen's 4-year-old daughter, Margaret.
"Swell guy, isn't he?" Bush said.
"I'm not a guy," said Margaret.
Bush said he was talking about her father.
Rep. Jim Langevin, a freshman Democrat from Rhode Island - and the first paraplegic ever elected to the House of Representatives - said he was "pleasantly surprised" that Bush chose to focus on disability issues so early.
He said he had been fearful that efforts by the outgoing administration would be jeopardized under the new Republican team.
"President Clinton was an outstanding leader," Langevin said. "He really gave substance to the issue of breaking down barriers. He did it in legislation, in action and in words.
"With him leaving the White House, I was concerned. Would there be an erosion of the gains? Or would we move forward?"
"I still want to look at the details," he said of Bush's plan. "But I'm encouraged."