Disabled Advocate Quits Administration in Protest

On Thursday, less than three months after resigning from her post as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Joanne Wilson will be on the outside, leading a rally in front of the U.S Department of Education, her former employer.

Wilson told FOXNews.com that the rally will be to protest policy proposals that could devastate federally funded vocational rehabilitation for disabled people across the country.

"A very effective, specific program that is designed to help people with disabilities is being devalued and ultimately destroyed," Wilson said.

Wilson, who is blind and counts herself as one of the millions of beneficiaries of federal assistance, quit her job at the RSA — an agency within the Department of Education — on March 1. She said her resistance to the pending closure of 10 regional offices and opposition to the administration's push to increase block-grant job-placement funds to the states were ignored.

"They knew that I was an advocate for people with disabilities and an advocate for dollars for people with disabilities," said Wilson, who was appointed by President Bush in 2001. "When they knew I wasn’t going to follow, they just cut me off. It was all done above me."

But John Hager (search), assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitation services, suggested Wilson's differences of opinion on how the RSA should be run were getting in the way of agency operations. He defended the administration’s strategy to reduce the bureaucracy and reorganize the state funding formula to provide more flexibility to the states.

"We’re changing cultures here in a sense," Hager told FOXNews.com. "The RSA has been around for a long time … but the fact is we can provide the assistance and do the work at the state offices in a more effective manner. It’s not a new concept."

Wilson, a former public school teacher, now a director at the National Federation of the Blind, said downsizing and block grants — popular in the Bush administration — won’t necessarily work for disability programs.

With an annual budget of approximately $2.9 billion, the RSA provides 80 percent of each state’s funding for vocational rehabilitation services for the disabled. The 138-person staff, which will be cut to 70 in the department’s plans to close the regional offices, provides oversight and technical assistance for statewide programs.

The RSA estimates that these public and private programs, which provide training and rehabilitation to the mentally and physically disabled, assist about 1.2 million people and place about 215,000 in jobs annually.

Wilson said that elimination of the regional offices will remove accountability. But others who support the administration’s plans for internal reorganization of the RSA say it’s about getting funds directly to those who need them.

It "means more money will be spent on training and services for individuals with disabilities, and fewer resources will be devoted to unnecessary bureaucracy," said Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

But critics say any money saved from the office closures will likely go to the mandatory 3 percent cost-of-living increase for RSA's budget, while plans to cut several programs next year would go forward.

"It’s just a shell game," said Paul Marchand, staff director for The Arc of the United States and the United Cerebral Palsy Disability Policy Collaboration, which represents about 1,100 service providers and affiliates across the country. "It’s a zero-sum increase."

Congress has not yet passed the budget, which is part of the Department of Education appropriations. The Workforce Investment Act (search) reauthorization, which contains RSA vocational service funding, is set to be tackled by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the next few months.

The administration is pushing a proposal for the WIA that would offer states the choice of receiving block grants that would incorporate RSA and Department of Labor job-placement funds for both disabled and non-disabled workers. The proposal is controversial and was not in the House reauthorization bill passed in March. It is uncertain whether it will make it into the final Senate legislation.

Wilson said the block grants would be attractive to cash-strapped states, which would likely put more of the money into quick and cheap non-disabled placements at the expense of other programs for the disabled.

"If we cut back funding and mush it in with other generic programs in the system, the adult disabled folks will be left behind," she said.

Paul Lather, director of Adult Learning and Rehabilitation in the New Hampshire Department of Education, which receives about $10 million in federal funds and helped 1,245 disabled people get jobs last year, said he is worried his staff will dwindle under block granting.

"We would have concerns about the quality of staff and the dedicated resources that would be available to disabled people in terms of employment," Lather said.

Hagar, who is wheelchair-bound after contracting polio in 1974, warned about such speculation, saying that the states would still have to follow stringent spending requirements attached to money for disability programs.

"Nobody’s ever tried it so how does anyone know it won’t be better? The money would be available, [the block grants] wouldn’t be mandatory and would be used at the discretion of the states," he said. "I wouldn’t be so negative on it at all."

Hagar also disputed Wilson’s claim that the office closings hurt accountability, and he defended the planned program cuts.

"We respect these people and want to do all we can to produce results, but the fact remains that we need some changes and new approaches to achieve the best results," he said.

A staff member at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said a lack of support for the block grants by Democrats and moderate Republicans on the committee might keep that provision from the final WIA legislation.

Meanwhile, Wilson said she plans to help make the public aware of the administration’s proposals and is sorry it didn’t work out for her at the RSA.

"I was told that they wanted me to make a difference for people with disabilities."