Imagine a plan designed to help people with disabilities find jobs in the community that left 78 percent of these people worse off than they were before.
Imagine a plan designed to help people with disabilities earn competitive wages that ends up cutting their hours by two-thirds, to just 10 hours a week of work.
Imagine a plan supposedly designed to help people with disabilities, but which actually eliminates a vital safety net for this most vulnerable population, reducing their life choices rather than increasing them.
Contrary to what some well-meaning activists would have you believe, this is exactly what we can expect if Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services refuses to modify its five-year transition plan to eliminate funding for prevocational programs, also known as sheltered workshops.
Prevocational programs allow people with developmental disabilities to work, take classes and receive other care in a safe environment that caters to their unique needs.
In April 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services changed the rules that govern funding for these services. Chief among these changes is a requirement to create a “more fully integrated” experience in the wider community.
At first glance, few people would object to this goal. However, the CMS regulations go much further than simply “encouraging” integration. Instead, the decision makers at this mammoth government agency have embarked on a policy of “integration uber alles.” This policy defunds thousands of prevocational programs, many of which have been providing excellent service for decades.
In Wisconsin, the plan would mean the closure of some 140 prevocational programs, which serve approximately 10,000 people.
At Eisenhower Center, the vast majority of our 100 clients function well below 30 percent of non-disabled workers, and many of them have functional capacities of 10 percent and below. Furthermore, many require one-to-one assistance with such basic daily tasks as eating and using the bathroom facilities.
Can any reasonable person expect our clients to find a job in the community – especially in a down economy? Can any reasonable person expect an employer to help a 300-pound, non-verbal diabetic in a wheelchair to the bathroom, check his insulin or insert a feeding tube during his lunch break?
If the experience of other states is any indication, the results of this transition plan are likely to be disappointing at best – and an utter disaster at worst.
In 2011, the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council reported on the results of that state’s decision to eliminate center-based programs in 2005. Six years after the programs were eliminated, just 36% of people with disabilities had found employment – at an average of just 10 hours a week. The remaining 64 percent had no job whatsoever – and essentially nowhere to go during the day.
The results in Maine were worse, with just 23 percent finding job after that state eliminated its workshop programs.
So much for the move to encourage integrated employment.
The Wisconsin DHS has published its transition plan online, with public comment being allowed until September 2, 2014 – just days away. To add insult to injury, the plan as published makes no mention of prevocational programs or what changes they would have to implement to come into compliance with the new regulations.
Significantly, the governors of some states, such as New Jersey, Mississippi and Massachusetts, have moved to save their prevocational services.
Wisconsin has a proud tradition of progressive thinking and looking our for those of us who are less fortunate. Now is the time for Governor Walker and DHS to step in to modify the transition plan and save prevocational services in this state.
A full version of the transition plan can be viewed on the DHS website.
David Ordan is development director at the Eisenhower Center, which is a member of Rehabilitation for Wisconsin, an umbrella organization of some 70 Community Rehabilitation Programs throughout the state.