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Congress Urged To Extend Handicapped Program to Indians, Migrants

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Washington--Educators and parents testifying here last week urged lawmakers to take steps to make federal programs for handicapped infants and preschoolers more accessible to the children of American Indians and migrant farm workers.

Their testimony came during an April 11 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Select Education. The hearing was the second of three scheduled in the Congress on the reauthorization of a five-year-old federal program for infants and toddlers with disabilities.

As a condition of the program, created under the 1986 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states must begin4serving their youngest handicapped citizens in the next few years or lose funding for the program. (See Education Week, March 27, 1991.)

Even though many states are still in the planning stages, federal officials say that the number of children age 2 and under receiving special-education services has increased by more than 100,000 since the year the program was enacted.

"Unfortunately, I must advise you today that Indian infants and toddlers are still getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle," said Trish Thomas, a parent of two disabled children and a member of the Laguna and Otoe-Missiouria tribes.

Part of the problem, witnesses said, is that the health-care systems serving many Indian reservations require residents to travel long distances for medical services not considered "urgent and emergent." These include prenatal care and delivery services for pregnant women.

The process, said Pam Dalme, a special-education director with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, "increases the likelihood that disabling conditions will be untreated."

'Dramatic Increases'

"We are seeing dramatic increases in serious handicapping conditions," she added.

Moreover, she said, Indian tribes, unlike states participating in the federal program, do not have much capacity to levy taxes to pay for the kinds of health, special-education, and other social services called for in the program.

Deborah Booth, special-projects manager of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, said that migrant families with disabled children face unique difficulties in securing early-intervention services because they move frequently and often do not speak English.

For those reasons, she said, "many community agencies not only are not actively seeking out the migrant children with disabilities, but some refuse or put off serving the children."

The subcommittee was scheduled to hold a second hearing on the program on April 12.--d.v.

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