WASHINGTON – A Maryland program that helps disabled people get technology that lets them lead more active lives will shut down, unless the federal government reinstates funding slated to end next year, the program’s director testified Thursday.
Paul Rasinski told the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness that because of budget woes in Annapolis, even the modest state funding that has been available for the Maryland Technology Assistance Program — about $100,000 — will probably be cut this year.
With federal support scheduled to end in September 2003, the program will probably not survive — nor will most other states’ assistive technology programs for the disabled, Rasinski said.
“Who will the parents of a child . . . turn to if that child has an accident that results in head trauma, and is suddenly performing at a first grade level an needs a wheelchair for mobility?” asked Rasinski, himself a quadriplegic since he was hurt in a 1977 softball game.
“Who will a senior citizen turn to when he or she can no longer climb the same set of stairs they negotiated for 40 years, or is terrified by a potential fall in the bathtub?” he asked.
The Maryland Technology Assistance Program began in 1988 with a 10-year federal grant from the Assistive Technology Act, which was passed that year.
The program serves as a clearinghouse and training ground for disabled people seeking technology to help them walk, type, drive and perform other everyday functions at home and on the job. It also provides guaranteed loans for disabled people to acquire the technology they need.
Federal funding now supports such programs in all 50 states and several U.S. territories. But that money was originally intended as seed money, and 1994 amendments to the act called for funding to be phased out entirely after 10 years. Congress has stepped in subsequently, however, and extended the federal aid from time to time.
The latest extension would have Maryland’s funding running out after 2003.
Federal funding to Maryland’s program has dropped from more than $700,000 a year to less than $400,000 in recent years. One of the first states to get the grant, Maryland is now one of the first 23 states scheduled to lose its money.
Without this commitment and the federal leadership, the gains that have been realized will disappear, as the states are not in a position to take over the federal role,” Rasinski said.
President Bush’s budget for fiscal 2003 does not extend funding for the programs, although it does provide money for some aspects of it, such as the guaranteed loans provided in Maryland. Rasinski dismissed this approach, however, because he did not think such funding would be available to a state that wasn’t able to maintain a technology assistance program in the first place.
Rasinski was one of four advocates testifying Thursday in a hearing room packed with blind, deaf, wheelchair-using children and adults.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, who was not a member of the subcommittee but helped extend funding through 2003, briefly joined the hearing to introduce Rasinski and voice his continuing support for the program.
“The assistive technology program empowers individuals with disabilities to have greater control over their lives and more fully participate at home, school and work,” Hoyer said later Thursday. “The information and training this program provides to thousands of individuals with disabilities in Maryland is too important to let it lapse.”