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Bush proposes plan to boost independence of disabled

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Declaring a "new freedom initiative," President Bush announced Thursday a $1.025 billion, five-year plan to boost the independence of the nation's disabled.

Seated at a lectern equipped for use by someone in a wheelchair and surrounded by an audience full of disabled people and their supporters, Bush said his plan would remove barriers to disabled Americans.

Noting that a set of stairs in the White House was replaced by a ramp during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose polio required he use a wheelchair, Bush said much has changed since the days "when only a president could have that kind of accommodation."

"Old barriers are falling away," he said. "We must speed up the day when the last barrier has been removed to full and independent lives for every American with or without disability."

Bush said his proposal would reduce the cost of technologies, such as text telephones for people with hearing impairments, computer monitors with Braille displays for the blind and infrared pointers for people who cannot use their hands.

Lighter wheelchairs and artificial limbs would "make the world more accessible, yet they are often inaccessible to people who need but cannot afford them," the president added.

Such help is often out of reach for Americans with disabilities, Bush said. "Today, they're only beyond their means and we can help," he said.

That help will include low-interest loans and an increase in federal funding to ensure that the technologies are made available to boost research and development into such products, and to help bring them to market.

Bush said his proposals would create a fund to help people buy equipment, so they can telecommute and would create tax incentives to encourage employers to make telecommuting equipment available to the disabled.

Bush said he would ask Congress to provide $45 million in funding for 10 pilot programs to promote innovative transportation solutions for people with disabilities. He proposed another $100 million for a matching grant program that would promote access to community-based alternative methods of transportation.

The president's plan also proposes $10 million in matching funds per year to increase the accessibility of organizations that are exempt from Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, such as churches, mosques, synagogues and civic organizations.

Bush's father signed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, when he was president.

Advocacy groups applauded the proposals, but said they wanted to see more. "We're happy that he has taken the initiative to address this so soon after coming into office, but we want to see the details before we go doing cartwheels," said Susan Prokof, associate advocacy director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

"We also would hope he would involve the disability advocacy community with the development of these proposals," she said, pointing out that her group first heard of the initiative Wednesday night, when it received a two-page fax from the federal government.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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