updated 12/29/2003 3:56:04 PM ET 2003-12-29T20:56:04

Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt is calling for new spending on special education, easing rules allowing people with disabilities to get jobs and using federal contracts to favor businesses that hire such workers.

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Gephardt, a Missouri congressman, argued that federal rules build obstacles for people with disabilities seeking work because they can lose medical coverage and other benefits if they take jobs.

“At a minimum, the federal government should not make it harder for people with disabilities to accept a job,” Gephardt said in remarks prepared for delivery. “Instead, we must provide incentives to further ease the path to work.”

In addition, Gephardt said he would push to fully fund programs offering special education to youngsters with disabilities, a key to developing the skills needed to work independently.

“Children with disabilities must get a first-rate education if they are going to succeed in the workplace,” he said. “Lack of skills can be the largest obstacle to success in our economy.”

Gephardt also said he would back revamping the Social Security system to make it easier for people to take jobs without losing health care benefits under Medicare.

During his first year in office, Gephardt said, he would sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to launch affirmative action programs to expand the number of disabled workers in their ranks.

“The president has the authority to influence how federal contractors hire their workers,” he said. “I will use my authority as president of the United States to expand job opportunities for people with disabilities, and the result will be a stronger economy for everyone.”

Another shot at Dean
While aides were billing Gephardt’s speech as a major policy address, he also used the occasion to renew his assault on rival Howard Dean, whom he accuses of cutting core social programs as governor of Vermont.

In his latest attack, Gephardt said Dean sought to cut $1 million from programs for the aged, blind and disabled, and was stopped only when the courts intervened.

“The people of Vermont had to fight their own governor to stop the cuts, which affected 13,000 of the most vulnerable in Vermont, including 10,000 in the disability community,” said Gephardt.

Dean routinely campaigns on a theme that he has experience balancing budgets in Vermont during his dozen years as governor, but Gephardt said that argument glosses over how those budgets were balanced.

“I can’t tell you how dismayed I am that a Democrat would wear these kind of budget cuts as a badge of honor,” Gephardt said. “This is not what we stand for in the Democratic Party.”

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