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Vol. 40 No. 3, May/June 2003

Guest Editorial

The New Freedom Initiative and its impact on disability and rehabilitation research


President George W. Bush unveiled his New Freedom Initiative (NFI) on February 1, 2001 [1]. The NFI was designed to break down remaining barriers to equality that continue to face Americans with disabilities and to further the progress made since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) [2]. This editorial will focus on the research aspects of the NFI. Research is specifically mentioned in the first component of the NFI, but I will show that the other three NFI components also have implications for the Nation's research and development programs in disability and rehabilitation research.

Steven James Tingus, MS CPhil Director NIDRR
Steven James Tingus, MS, CPhil
Director, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC



Briefly, the four components of the NFI are-

    1. Increasing access to assistive and universally designed technologies: The NFI calls for an increased research budget, creation of a fund to help bring assistive technology (AT) to the marketplace, improved coordination of the Federal research and development effort, and funding for low-interest loan programs to help individuals purchase AT.
    2. Expanding educational opportunities: The NFI supports increased funding to states to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA) and to establish a grant program to support early comprehensive reading programs in schools [3].
    3. Increasing integration into the workforce: The NFI calls for low-interest loan guarantees for individuals and tax benefits for employers who purchase computer and Internet access for telecommuting, promotion and enforcment of the ADA, and funding for the development of innovative transportation solutions.

    4. Promoting full access to community life: The NFI recommends swift implementation of the "American Homeownership and Economic Opportunity Act of 2000" [4], which permits recipients with disabilities to use Section 8 vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to finance the down payment on a home, and also provides Federal matching funds to increase the accessibility of organizations currently exempt from Title III of the ADA.

The Administration's progress toward the fulfillment of the initial NFI goals was summarized in May 2002 [1].

The President secured new funding for many NFI programs in the FY 2002 budget process. Highlights specifically related to research include-


The NFI's first component has explicit implications for research, directing the ICDR to improve coordination of the Federal Assistive Technology Research and Development Program. The NFI noted that the Federal Government has had no effective coordinating body for AT research and development. The NFI further noted "while the ICDR was designed to coordinate the Federal effort, it has had no real authority and no budget." In FY 2002, the ICDR began to prioritize the immediate assistive and universally designed technology needs in the disability community, as well as to foster collaborative projects between the Federal laboratories and the private sector.

The first two highlights from the FY 2002 budget just presented are clearly research related. The NIDRR RERC program now has 22 centers, 5 of which were funded in 2002. These centers are funded at approximately $900,000 a year and represent the largest concentration of rehabilitation engineering research and development in the Nation. New RERCs in Spinal Cord Injury: Technologies to Enhance Mobility and Function, Workplace Accommodations, Rehabilitation Robotics and Telemanipulation, Machines Assisting Recovery from Stroke, Recreational Technologies and Exercise Physiology Benefiting Persons with Disabilities, and Accessible Medical Instrumentation joined existing RERCs in Technologies for Children with Orthopedic Disabilities, Low Vision and Blindness, Hearing Enhancement, Telerehabilitation, Technology for Successful Aging, Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities, Improved Technology Access for Land Mine Survivors, Prosthetics and Orthotics, Ergonomic Solutions for Employment, Technology Transfer, Universal Design and the Built Environment at Buffalo, Communication Enhancement, Universal Design and the Built Environment at North Carolina State University, Wheeled Mobility, Wheelchair Transportation Safety, Information Technology Access, and Telecommunication Access.

The ICDR, authorized by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended [5], promotes coordination and cooperation among Federal departments and agencies conducting disability and rehabilitation research programs. Representatives of over 30 agencies regularly participate on the ICDR. In addition to the full committee, under the NFI, two new Subcommittees were added: Technology Transfer Subcommittee and the New Freedom Initiative Subcommittee. They join the existing Subcommittees on Disability Statistics, Medical Rehabilitation, and Technology. The goals of the ICDR and its Subcommittees are to (1) increase consumer input to the ICDR to ensure that research efforts lead to solutions for identified needs, (2) coordinate Government-wide research activities in support of the NFI, (3) improve the visibility of the ICDR and Federal disability research in general, and (4) identify and solve problems that are broad or cross-cutting to encourage partnerships among various agencies and departments, using a multidisciplinary approach.


The Administration has issued Executive Orders and Memoranda to support the NFI. Key among them are-

As the outcomes of these executive orders and memoranda evolve with the continued implementation of the NFI, most likely, gaps in knowledge and practice will be found. These gaps will lead to identifying new areas for research. Increased dissemination of research outcomes under the NFI, as well as being more proactive in seeking out the needs and opinions of individuals with disabilities, will also help inform the Nations' future research agenda in this area.

A variety of other activities have been completed in support of the NFI, such as the establishment of advisory groups, new grant programs, and interagency working groups; implementation of informational and technical assistance programs; and policy development [2]. The ICDR recently established a new web site specifically to gather input from the public on disability and rehabilitation research needs [14].


The impact of the NFI has already been felt during its first year of implementation. New research centers have been funded, interagency coordination has been dramatically improved, and the stage has been set for identifying new problems that research must solve. New efforts by the ICDR to obtain input from persons with disabilities will generate information that can be used by Federal agencies in helping to set future research priorities.

Steven James Tingus, MS, CPhil


      1. New Freedom Initiative and New Freedom Initiative Progress Report [full text]. February 2001 and May 2002, respectively. Available from: URL: http://www.
      2. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Vol. 42, U.S.C. Sec. 12101.
      3. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, Public Law No. 105-17 (1997).
      4. American Homeownership and Economic Opportunity Act of 2000, Public Law No. 106-569 (2000).
      5. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Public Law No. 93-112 (1973).
      6. Community-Based Alternatives for Individuals with Disabilities, Executive Order 13217 (June 18, 2001). Available from: URL:
      7. Supreme Court Decision: Olmstead vs. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999).
      8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Delivering on the promise: Compilation of individual Federal agency reports of actions to eliminate barriers and promote community integration (March 25, 2002). Available from: URL:
      9. The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, Executive Order 13227 (October 3, 2001). Available from: URL: order.html.
      10. President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families (July 1, 2002). Available from: URL:
      11. Directive to Develop Interagency Disability Web Site, Executive Memorandum (August 28, 2002). Available from: URL: 2002/08/20020828.html.
      12. The New Freedom Initiative's Online Resource for Americans with Disabilities (October 16, 2002). Available from: URL:
      13. Executive Memorandum: Interagency Working Group on Assistive Technology Mobility Devices. (February 12, 2003). Available from: URL:
      14. The Interagency Committee on Disability Research (February 28, 2002). Available from: URL:

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