For half her life, Nancy Baker Kennedy was forced to make an agonizing choice between her acting career and health care. Talented and well educated, she was forced to live in poverty rather than give up expensive home care and therapy. Like millions of other disabled Americans, every dollar she made put her a step closer to the income threshold that would end her government-funded health benefits. "I have been thwarted and hobbled by trying to make less than 200 dollars a month for 9 months -- with a masters degree."
Today, in the shadow of a statue of America's most famous disabled person, Franklin Roosevelt, President Clinton signed into law a bill to relax income restrictions on eligibility and allow disabled people to work. "Roosevelt felt he needed to keep his wheelchair from public view," the president said. "Most people believed being disabled meant being unable, though he proved them wrong every day."
The measure won praise from Republicans as well as from the disabled.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the new law means more Americans with disabilities will become taxpayers. "Its benefits are obvious and long overdue," he said. "It's time our government made it easier, not harder, for the disabled to find work."
And 38 year-old James Sullivan, paralyzed in a diving accident 20 years ago, said, "There is an untapped population of Americans with disabilities who are dying to get back to work."
But this bill doesn't end their frustrations. The federal government must still convince states to sign onto the deal.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a sponsor of the bill, realizes that: "I'd like to say the war is over. I'd like to say, on this sunny beautiful day, it's all put to bed. But what this really is you know: The shovel has been put in the dirt."
Advocates for the disabled say the battle ahead is to put pressure on State Governors to get on board. About a dozen have already indicated their willingness to implement the measure. But advocates admit there are some states who will be predisposed not to do it.