Legislators Describe "Broken" System of Disability Services

By Gina Macris

For some individuals, there is a big gap between vision and reality under the terms of the federal consent decree that attempts to bring Rhode Island into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Legislators described some of the real-life experiences during a session of the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), Thursday, April 7, at which two officials involved with the consent decree briefed lawmakers about progress of the court case.

State Rep. Dennis Canario, D-Portsmouth, said that one of his constituents used to have work through the James L. Maher Center, which is headquartered in Newport, but now he sits at home, doing nothing.

The man had been in a job where he interacted primarily with other people with disabilities, while the consent decree mandates that Rhode Island’s developmental disability system move toward community-based employment. Canario said, in effect, that the second part of the equation has not materialized for his constituent.

“I don’t understand the whole thing,” Canario said, “There are broken parts to it. People are becoming victims.”

A similar account was described by Rep. Joseph N. McLaughlin, D-Cumberland and Central Falls, who said one of his constituents is a man who uses a wheelchair and has had a total of 17 surgeries for a medical condition.

The man’s family has been notified that his state support would be cut off “because he wasn’t working,” McLaughlin said, adding, “Somebody screwed up somewhere.”

Charles Moseley, the federal court monitor on implementation of the consent decree, said there is a variance process for individuals for whom employment is not appropriate.

 Moseley also said he wants to hear from families and individuals who are having problems during the implementation of the consent decree. 

He and A. Anthony Antosh, director of the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College, said a lack of funding is the chief cause of the problems experienced by individuals who depend on developmental disability services. 

Antosh, who provides technical expertise and guidance to implementation efforts, said a total of 20 percent was cut from the state’s developmental disability budget between 2009 and 20012.

Progressive practices that were commonplace in 2000 and 2001 were “deconstructed” as a result of the cumulative impact of funding reductions and led to the U.S. Department of Justice initiating an investigation into the state’s sheltered workshops, Antosh said.  That investigation resulted in the consent decree, signed in 2014.

An evidentiary hearing on the state’s compliance with the decree – which undoubtedly will touch on funding – is set to begin at 10 a.m. Friday, April 8,  in U.S. District Court before Judge John J. McConnell, Jr.

The HEW Committee Chairman, Joseph N. McNamara , D-Warwick, pointed to gaps in service when young people transition from school-based programs to adult services.

“The last few monthsof school are cruel and unusual punishment,” McNamara said. “It’s one of the saddest things that take place in our schools,” he said.

McNamara said the House recently passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro, D-Westerly, Deputy House Majority Leader, that would require school districts to retain students with disabilities through the end of the academic year during which they celebrate their 21st birthday. The bill now needs support in the Senate, he said.

Canario, a committee member and the father of a child with a disability, said the service gap is a big issue.

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Moseley said.

“Are you saying that exiting school without a transition plan is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act?” Canario asked.

Moseley paused, as if to choose his words. The consent decree has “specific requirements” for transition services that include a career development plan, beginning at age 14, he said.

McNamara said, “Transition planning is not taking place.”

He cited the case of a young man from Westerly who was “helping out” at the General Assembly on Wednesdays in a student vocational experience and was suddenly “thrown out of school.”

“He doesn’t understand why he can’t help out with all these activities” any more, McNamara said.

The system is broken, Canario said. “Too many kids – young adults – are turning 18 and their services are being dropped.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” said Moseley.