In D.C., real progress for people with disabilities
By Thomas Wilds
The Post has published an excellent series of articles in recent months on the District government’s care of D.C. residents with disabilities. The Nov. 28 Metro story by Henri E. Cauvin, “Probes of disabled abuse in D.C. lag,” reported that the agency overseeing the care of people with developmental disabilities is hundreds of cases behind in its investigations of abuse, neglect and other serious incidents.
I applaud the long-overdue focus on the plight of some of our most vulnerable residents, but we must not overlook the significant progress the city has made in the past 2 1/2 years.
A little history is warranted. While the District was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to close its deteriorating institution for those with disabilities, Forest Haven, it continued to provide services through an inefficient medical and institutional model. For years, people with disabilities, their families, advocates, providers and a host of others attempted to change this by developing an individualized, community-based approach to services with little success.
Former residents of Forest Haven continued to receive institutional-type services. Support to allow people with disabilities to work went mostly unfunded, forcing people into sheltered workshops or group “busy work.” Day programs were facility-based and isolated from the community. Residential services consisted of large group homes, separated in many respects from normal community interactions and resources.
In April 2007, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty named Judith E. Heumann the first director of the D.C. Department on Disability Services (DDS). In August of the same year, Laura L. Nuss became deputy director of the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) within DDS. They inherited a 30-year-old class-action lawsuit and a dysfunctional agency responsible for the welfare and provision of services to citizens with intellectual, developmental and other disabilities.
These leaders came with the right knowledge and values. They launched a new era of cooperation with service providers and improved services for people with disabilities. The individualized, community-based system was activated for the majority of clients, and essential services were developed and adequately funded. For many agencies, including St. John’s Community Services, the long battles to convert the institutional model to the individualized model have ended.
The people whom St. John’s Community Services supports now live in small-group settings with no more than three residents per apartment or home. For the first time, people with disabilities can receive support services in their homes. Supported employment now means one person, in one job, in the community and at a competitive wage. The city has also instituted effective monitoring of services and developed a progressive and dedicated staff team.
In addition, DDA and DDS have championed a program called Money Follows the Person to move people out of institutional services. And the agencies have formed partnerships with other city officials, most importantly with John McCarthy, deputy director of the Health Care Finance Administration, and his staff, who oversee the Medicaid program that provides most of the funding for these services.
For the first time in my 30 years as president of St. John’s Community Services, these District agencies are working together toward a common goal — to provide high-quality, community-based services for people with disabilities. Having battled the system for many years, I can say that while the system is far from perfect and abuses still occur, it has come a very long way from the atrocities of Forest Haven and a dysfunctional and unresponsive city government.
The writer is president and chief executive of St. John’s Community Services, which has contracts to provide services with the District’s Department on Disability Services and other agencies.
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