WASHINGTON — While 20 groups for the handicapped called for her resignation, Education Department aide Eileen M. Gardner defended herself in a tense confrontation with Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), contending that sentiment favoring handicapped education funding is "falsely based."
Gardner, hired Monday by Education Secretary William J. Bennett as an adviser on education reform, was asked by Weicker to explain her view that funding for the handicapped is "counterproductive." She contended in a 1983 report that handicapped persons are responsible for their conditions, saying that a "person's external circumstances do fit his level of inner spiritual development."
Gardner's report, entitled "The Federal Role of Education" and prepared for the conservative Heritage Foundation, was disclosed Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education policy, which Weicker chairs.
On Wednesday, Bennett issued a statement reaffirming the Administration's "wholehearted commitment" to equal opportunity and enforcement of laws requiring equal access to education for the handicapped, but it did not mention Gardner. However, after the hearing, Bennett specifically disassociated his department from statements made by another new aide, Lawrence A. Uzzell, who told Weicker that he opposes any federal aid to elementary and secondary education.
Stands by Report
Gardner did not back down from the views expressed in her report and said she could not separate what she called her "personal religious views" from "daily activity." However, she maintained that her job in the department's newly created Educational Philosophy and Practice Office would not affect handicapped programs directly.
Weicker, the father of a child with Down's syndrome, seemed particularly incensed by Gardner's description of "normal" and handicapped" persons as "higher and lower" individuals.
But one of Weicker's aides, who declined to be identified, said after the hearing that he did not believe the senator would pursue further action against Gardner. "I think he got what he wanted this morning: to hear she wasn't going to have an effect on policy," the aide said.
However, disability rights groups intensified their criticism of Gardner's views and objected to her statement that, as an educational policy adviser, she would not deal with handicapped funding.
'Missing the Point'
"She's missing the whole point of the law," Evan Kemp, executive director of the Disability Rights Center, said. "The whole thrust of movement is the integration of disabled people into society, not to be segregated and kept at home in a closet."
Kemp is one of about 20 advocates who delivered a letter Wednesday to President Reagan calling for Gardner's resignation.
During Wednesday's hearing, Weicker told Gardner that he had received a call from the wife of White House Press Secretary James S. Brady complaining about the views in her report. Brady suffered severe brain damage when he was shot during a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.
Weicker asked Gardner: "Do you think Jim Brady's 'external circumstances' . . . fit his level of inner spiritual development'?"
Gardner replied: "That is in no way to assume that a person is inferior or bad. I am saying that what happens to a person in life, the circumstances a person is born into--the race, the handicapping conditions, the sex, whatever . . . those circumstances are there to help the individual grow towards internal spiritual perfection."