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Will Criticized by Groups for Disabled

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Washington--The administration of Madeleine C. Will has come under mounting criticism from groups working to rehabilitate the handicapped.

In letters mailed this month and last month to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and President Reagan, 10 national organizations serving the disabled complained about what one group referred to as a "hostile attitude" in the Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, which is headed by Ms. Will.

The groups argued that the assistant secretary has "paralyzed" the rehabilitation-services administration--an office that falls under her departmental umbrella--by delaying the implementation of new federal rehabilitation programs, reducing and downgrading staff in that office, restricting travel for those employees, and usurping the authority of Justin W. Dart, Jr., the recently appointed commissioner of rehabilitation services.

The office is responsible for federal rehabilitation programs for handicapped adults and young people, primarily efforts involving education and employment training.

The sharpest criticism has come from the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, whose members have refused to work with Ms. Will.

"We are saddened and frustrated at the very existence of this situation, and deplore the fact that the most important federal office for persons with disabilities is being operated in an extremely narrow, undemocratic, and ineffective fashion," the state directors wrote in an Aug. 4 letter to Mr. Bennett.

Other groups expressing various degrees of "concern" over the administration of federal rehabilitation services have included: the National Head Injury Foundation, the Conference of Educational Administrators Serving The Deaf, the National Association of Rehabilitation Professionals in the Private Sector, The National Rehabilitation Counseling Association, the National Council on Independent Living, the American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the National Rehabilitation Association, and the National Council on Rehabilitation Education.

Ms. Will called state administrators' allegations "perplexing."

"The letter is full of allegations that are unsupported by fact and makes contradictory allegations," she said.

Praise for Justin Dart

In contrast to their harsh criticism of the way Ms. Will has managed the federal rehabilitation-services program, the groups offered warm praise for Mr. Dart, who they say is legally in charge of the program. A longtime advocate for the disabled, Mr. Dart was appointed commissioner of the administration last September by President Reagan.

"To waste an asset as valuable as Justin Dart by usurping his authority every step of the way is not only foolish, but tragic," the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to Mr. Bennett.

The groups have charged that Ms. Will has made the commissioner arehead" by blocking his directives and restricting his travel au4thority. They also note that the number of staff members in the administration's central office in Washington has been reduced from 137 in 1981 to 80 as of last November.

In addition, the groups accused Ms. Will of delaying the implementation of a new $24.2-million employment-aid program that the Congress approved last year when it amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

But an aide to the assistant secretary said Ms. Will had been waiting for regulations to guide the new program before distributing the grants. The money will go out later this month after the new regulations are approved, according to the aide, Thelma Leenhouts.

The controversy has apparently split the handicapped community, with a consortium of 13 other advocacy groups rallying to Ms. Will's defense. The Consortium for Citizens With Developmental Disabilities wrote to Mr. Bennett last month to "convey ... support for the excellent commitment and leadership" shown by Ms. Will.

Rallying in Defense

Mr. Bennett also said he still had confidence in the embattled assistant secretary. In a written reply to the state administrators' group, the Secretary said he rejected claims that Ms. Will had acted beyond her authority in supervising federal rehabilitation services, and he urged the state directors to continue working with her.

He added: "Madeleine Will has demonstrated her commitment to improving the productivity and independence of disabled Americans."

The consortium members who wrote in support of the assistant secretary included:

The Mental Health Law Project, the Epilepsy Foundation of America, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the Association for Retarded Citizens, the United Cerebral Palsy Associations, the National Network of Parent Centers, the Spina Bifida Association of America, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the American Occupational Therapy Association, The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, the American Association of University Affliliated Programs, the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, and the National Association of State Mental Retardation Program Directors.

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