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Originally published Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 3:56 PM

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Guest columnist

Don't close job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities

Guest columnist Karen Williams warns the state would be making a mistake if it ended employment programs for people with developmental disabilities in favor of a program that warehouses them in adult day-care centers.

Special to The Times

A CRISIS, goes the widely used political adage, is a terrible thing to waste. But a crisis can also result in drastic decisions and ill-considered reversals in public policy.

This is part of state budget deliberations, in which the House has proposed a $54 million cut from employment programs for people with developmental disabilities. That amounts to a 40 percent reduction in current programs, which isn't even the worst of it. The worst is that the provision would force a shift in the state's longtime emphasis on helping people find employment in their communities to one that would congregate, segregate and isolate them in adult day-care centers.

This would reverse Washington state's national leadership in this area of employment, proved to be a cost-effective approach that helps people contribute to their communities.

The House budget currently calls for a transfer of $41 million away from employment programs into day care, a move proponents characterize as a "cheaper alternative." In fact, the move would be extremely costly. At a time when jobs and economic viability are so crucial to our communities, the change would jeopardize 3,000 jobs held by people with developmental disabilities across the state and transfer resources into a program with no vocational focus. It would not achieve long-term cost savings.

Further, the proposal to set up so-called "alternative day programs" is shamefully regressive and undermines two decades of Washington state investments that enable people with disabilities to become productive, taxpaying citizens and full participants in their communities.

State Reps. Maureen Walsh and Norma Smith — both cost-conscious Republicans — recently sent out a news release urging the Senate to avoid the House's mistake and understand the House proposal's dangerous implications. These include:

• Creating costly day programs that haven't existed in Washington state since the 1970s, when they were eliminated because they segregated people with disabilities from their communities. The House budget provides no detail on how many state resources would be lost to implementation and overhead.

• Reducing the benefit of special-education programs, which prepare students to use their skills and be part of the work force, not languish in congregate care. The employment cuts will mean that young adults will graduate without adequate assistance to find jobs, thus wasting the state's investment in special education and increasing the number of state residents who will be fully dependent on public assistance.

• Inviting legal challenges because congregate adult day-care programs may be illegal under the U.S. Supreme Court's Olmstead Decision, which affirms the right of individuals to live and work in their own communities.

• Undermining the health of thousands of state residents with disabilities by denying them the right to work and stay active and forcing them to rely on publicly financed health care.

Washington state has a national reputation for demonstrating that individuals with even the most significant disabilities can work successfully in their communities, resulting in lives that are characterized by economic empowerment, a sense of dignity, self worth and full participation. In the current economic climate, we should maintain policies and investments that promote employment. Under current policies, the small number of individuals and families who determine work is not possible because of health concerns or other complications can select alternative services.

Advocates for people with developmental disabilities recognize that it is likely there will be cuts to employment services. But the recession should not force a hasty move into adult day care — into a costly new program that warehouses people.

In this time of fiscal turmoil, let us choose an option that enables people to be part of the work force rather than forcing them to sit idle and segregated.

Karen Williams is a board member for the Washington State Initiative for Supported Employment, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

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