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U.S. Abandons Attempt To Weaken Handicapped-Rights Rules

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Washington--The Reagan Administration has abandoned its plans to rewrite regulations governing the federal law barring discrimination against the handicapped in federally funded programs, Vice President George Bush announced last week.

At the same time, a spokesman for the Justice Department announced that the Administration, at least for the time being, had also cancelled its plan to issue new regulations that would have provided for the coordination of all federal civil-rights activities under the department. The proposed revision of the handicapped-rights regulations was a part of the larger Justice Department "coordination" regulations.

Advocates for the handicapped called the Reagan Administration's decision "the greatest victory for the handicapped since 1977," when hundreds of handicapped individuals engaged in acts of civil disobedience in order to spur the government to issue regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Law Prohibits Discrimination

The law prohibits discrimination "against an otherwise qualified handicapped individual" in programs, including those in schools and colleges, that receive federal assistance.

Mr. Bush, who chairs the President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief, made known the Administration's decision in letters dated March 21 to several handicapped-rights groups.

The Vice President explained that "a full evaluation [had] prompted the conclusion that extensive change of the existing 504 coordination regulations was not required, and that with respect to those few areas where clarification might be desirable, the courts are currently providing useful guidance and can be expected to do so in the future."

In late 1980, former President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order giving the Justice Department the authority to coordinate the implementation and enforcement of all federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of race, sex, handicap, and age.

Part of that order authorizes the Attorney General to review existing and proposed civil-rights regulations and to issue new regulations "as necessary" after consulting with departments and agencies affected by the changes.

In early January 1982, handicapped-rights groups obtained a draft copy of the so-called "coordination" regulation that had been circulating in the Justice Department. That document contained a "deregulation" proposal for Section 504 that the groups said "would drastically undermine the federal government's commitment to equal rights for disabled Americans."

'Potential Contributions'

Later that year, the groups obtained a draft of the deregulation proposal circulating in the Office of Management and Budget that contained a provision that would have allowed programs receiving federal aid to consider a handicapped individual's "potential contributions to society" when determining adjustments in the program. The programs would also have been allowed to consider the cost of accommodating the handicapped individuals and the total number of persons eligible for services when making such decisions.

In addition, the draft proposal would have limited the application of the anti-bias law to those programs that receive aid directly, rather than to institutions as a whole.

According to Pat Wright, a spokesman for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc., the Administration's decision last week to drop the proposal "marks the end of two and a half years of hard work for us."

'Final Score'

"I guess you can say that the final score is: Handicapped 504, Reagan Administration 0," Ms. Wright added.

Ms. Wright suggested, however, that Vice President Bush's letter contains a "loophole" that could al-low the Administration to pick up the deregulation plan at some future date.

"He was careful to state that in those few areas where the Administration thinks change may be needed, the courts 'are currently providing' useful information and that they 'may be expected to do so' in the future," Ms. Wright explained. She added that the Administration may be charting its plans with respect to Section 504 "on the basis of future court decisions in the area."

Justice Department officials were also cautious in discussing the future of the deregulation proposal. John V. Wilson, a spokesman for the department, said the Vice President's announcement "closes the books on the proposal for the time being."

The Administration's decision to abandon, at least temporarily, its proposed reform of the Section 504 regulations follows its decision last year to "withdraw for further study" some of the more controversial sections of its plan to revise regulations for P.L. 94-142, the Education For All Handicapped Children Act.

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