By Michael Rock

When states need to better manage their budgets, services for people with disabilities are often among the first things to be cut. The implicit and sometimes explicit reasoning for this is that people with disabilities are seen as financial burdens rather than as people with unique needs and talents that just need to be given the right opportunities to shine. In fact, there are many benefits to funding disability services that are good for both people with disabilities as well as those around them.

This March, Firstbank gave a $5,000 donation to the Developmental Disabilities Resource Center in Lakewood, Colorado to honor Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. The money went into the organization’s “25th Hour Fund” which is used to fund emergencies for the people who benefit from the center’s services. These include replacing a stolen commuter bike so that one man with a disability would no longer have to fear losing his job and helping a family with a member with disabilities to pay off a security deposit on a home to which they seriously needed to move. 

In Ohio, the Butler, Hamilton, and Clermont County Boards of Developmental Disabilities have cooperated on a grant to establish the first “Smart Home,” a technologically-advanced group home for people with disabilities, in the town of Lebanon. The home contains numerous, sensors, cameras, and two-way communication devices to help support crucial real-time interactions between home staff and residents.

Regardless, the tendency to de-prioritize services for people with disabilities is not just bad for them, but also for the direct care professionals crucial to ensuring their wellbeing, who are expected to apply numerous skills to their work, including managing medication and health issues, supporting individuals with emotional and behavioral difficulties that can lead to violent behavior, job coaching, personal care provision, financial management assistance, benefits management, nutritious meal preparation, and helping residents with relationship and sexuality issues, as well as housekeeping and security. Despite the numerous skills needed in this line of work, direct care professionals generally earn a lot less than what their talents would suggest. Greater funding of disability services would allow for them to get better pay, and improve retention rates in their line of work.

Furthermore, many parents of children with disabilities fear the day their kids turn twenty-one. In many states, that is the age in which they cease to fund crucial disability supports. In New York, a bipartisan plan by Republican and Democratic state assembly members Mary Beth Walsh and Carrie Woerner to extend support payments well into adulthood for such conditions as autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy.

In states such as New Mexico, where institutionalized care does not exist at the state level, Medicaid waivers, which connects people with disabilities and their families not only to Medicaid, but to respite services, employment training, and various therapies. However, it takes an average of thirteen and a half years for applicants to obtain such waivers.

The state’s new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, recently made shortening these wait times a priority when she gave the New Mexico departments of Health and Human Services a deadline of July 1 to create an additional Medicaid waiver that allows families who remain on the program’s waiting list to more cost-effectively access services they need.

In North Dakota, where disability services are scarce, the state senate recently passed legislation on bipartisan lines to ensure the needs of the state’s citizens with developmental and intellectual disabilities are met more efficiently. Provisions of the bill include increasing funding for the Life Skills and Transition Center in Grafton, a state-run agency for people whose needs community resources are unable to accommodate, so that it can hire 7.5 more full-time employees. It would also offer a standardized test to determine the eligibility of the center’s residents and grow a team that partners with community providers so that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities do not have to leave their communities.

Funding for disability services has become increasingly crucial since 2014, when the federal government issued a final rule that mandated states to allow people with disability greater freedom of choice in employment, housing, and socialization by March 2022. In Hawaii, a major endeavor in preparing for this overhaul includes creating more employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  One such development includes a partnership between Honolulu’s Roosevelt High School and Waikiki’s Outrigger Hotels and Resorts. Under this program, special educations students from Roosevelt participate in a yearlong unpaid internship that gives them professional training and experience.

In addition, funding is necessary as the average life expectancy of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities increases. Though JESPY, a South Orange, New Jersey-based services provider has some quality group homes, many people with disabilities in the state and their families face a number of challenges, including waiting lists to access services, a lack of medical staff who know how to interact with patients with disabilities, as well as Medicaid reimbursement rates that do not adequately cover their needs.

It is a deeply offensive misconception that people with developmental and intellectual disabilities have nothing to offer society and that their needs should not be funded. On the contrary, when funding services for people with such disabilities is prioritized, their ability to grow and be included in the community increases substantially.

Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.