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To the National Council - Part 3

The National Council’s Origin, and Prior Personnel and Activities

Preliminarily, it was useful for the new staff to learn a bit of the history of the Council, its current make-up, and how to work effectively with its members. Over time, I was able to piece together more information about the origins of the Council. Congress decided to create a National Council in 1978, perhaps as an outgrowth of ideas articulated during the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals in 1977, which called for such things as appointment of a special advisor or presidential spokesperson to make recommendations to the President and advise government agencies and the public on disability policy issues, and a President's Ombudsman Council to provide a mechanism for raising disability concerns directly to the highest levels of government. An amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 sponsored by Representative John Brademas (who had previously played a key role in the creation of the National Center for Law and the Handicapped, my first employer after law school) added a Title IV to that Act to establish a National Council on the Handicapped within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW).[1] The new agency would consist of 15 presidential appointees, whose appointments would require confirmation by the Senate, and was given responsibility for establishing general policies for, and reviewing the operation of, the new National Institute of Handicapped Research (created in the same legislation), later to be renamed the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). The Council was also directed to advise DHEW and the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services on rehabilitation policies and programs, including providing recommendations for improving research and service programs.

In November of 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared his intention to appoint Dr. Howard Rusk, a rehabilitation pioneer and founder of the Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at the New York University Medical Center, to be the first chairperson of the Council. The President formally transmitted to the Senate the nominations of Dr. Rusk and the rest of his slate of appointments to the Council in May 1980, and they were confirmed in September. Among the appointees to the Council were important disability rights leaders Elizabeth Boggs and Judy Heumann, and the actress, comedian, singer, and dancer Nanette Fabray, who had a significant hearing impairment during most of her career.[2] The original roster of council members had only a short time to do their work, but managed to make some important contributions. In May 1981, the Council sent a letter to the President, the leaders in both houses of Congress, and the Secretaries of Education and of Health and Human Services (DHEW had been divided by this point) recommending the maintenance of “a strong federal role in assuring a free appropriate education and adequate medical care” for all children with disabilities, of “the programmatic integrity of the state rehabilitation programs,” and of the “planning, coordinating and advocacy provisions of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.” The Council fulfilled a major statutory obligation by developing and adopting Policies Governing the National Institute of Handicapped Research. It also opposed efforts to roll back federal regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and advised Congress against a proposal to eliminate the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board.

Continue on to Part 4: President Reagan’s Council, Key Members, and the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities

[1] Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services, and Developmental Disabilities Act of 1978, Pub.L. No. 95-602, § 117, 92 Stat. 2977-2979.

[2] Other members were Mary P. Chambers, Nelba R. Chavez, Jack G. Duncan, Donald E. Galvin, John P. Hourihan, Thomas C. Joe, Odessa Komer, Edwin O. Opheim, J. David Webb, and Henry Williams.