PROVIDENCE - Think back to an Aug.10 story headlined "Those most in need face doing with less.'' We remember a picture with the article of 23-year-old Paul Goes with his father after a swim. He looks pleasantly engaged with his parents, and one would think this was just another family enjoying routine recreation. Then we read the caption: "Paul cannot speak and needs help with such basics as eating and dressing himself. The state [of Rhode Island] cut $24 million for programs for the developmentally disabled." And Paul has a disabled brother.
The newspaper has given us a striking glimpse into the lives of many Rhode Island families living with and loving a child growing into adulthood with disabilities. This invites reflection on how budget cuts can change the fabric of family life. When budgets are created and the time comes to consider the welfare of such young adults as Paul who may have to remain dependent if not provided with programs to sustain themselves, why is it that the services for such individuals are so often the first to go?
Last year's Rhode Island state budget outrage shifted our common gaze primarily onto the exorbitant pension plans of public employees. One can hardly deny that the police and firefighters, all of them protectors of our children and vulnerable youth, should receive salaries and benefits commensurate with their enormous responsibilities and skills. But the ripple effects from $24 million in cuts to state services for adults with disabilities and their families clearly signal that the child may be getting thrown out with the bath water. Happily, advocates for Rhode Island's young children have some recent cause for optimism. A $50 million federal grant has been awarded to Rhode Island, largely owing to the reliable data-gathering and informed promotional skills of Rhode Island Kids Count. This kind of investment in childhood and adolescence that Kids Count has advocated for over a decade has been shown to pay off through higher educational success, employment and life satisfaction.
Rhode Islanders still face an unprecedented and disproportionate assault on critical programs and services for adults who are compromised physically and mentally. They need programs with known effectiveness in teaching safety and productivity. This urgency is especially compelling in light of the rising numbers of individuals, especially those with autism, who are born with or acquire developmental disabilities but, if we are not careful, will "age out" of educational support when they are 21. Rhode Island has long been nationally recognized for its high-quality, cost-effective and innovative supports and services for people with disabilities. Rhode Island adult citizens with disabilities contribute over $2.5 million in wages to our economy through supported employment. The Community Provider Network of Rhode Island (CPNRI) — 19 service providers to Rhode Island's 3,500 adults with disabilities — laments that "real threats exist to the continuation of services that families, staff, volunteers and citizens of good will have taken decades to build."
How will all this change the lives of people like Paul Goes? For many, cutbacks will become the breeding ground for anxiety and severe behavior problems that require even more intensive services and, ironically, at greater costs to all. Many specially trained parents, already struggling financially, could drown in "adult day care" responsibilities if they are not provided relief. Every handicapped child needs sustained support of education, employment preparation and a meaningful life in the community, and must not be abandoned by society when grown up. If a state budget reflects what Rhode Islanders value, we are heartened by the bill (2012-H7035) recently introduced by Rep. Scott Guthrie (D-Coventry), seeking to restore $12 million (to become $20 million with matching federal funds) to programs and services for developmentally disabled Rhode Island citizens. Funding these programs makes financial and practical sense and, more importantly, says Representative Guthrie, "we have an obligation, we have a contractual duty to help these individuals and their families. We cannot just toss them out and forget about them."
Just as Paul's parents do, this bill reminds us that looking after handicapped children and youth often means committing resources into and through adulthood. We call upon all, including state representatives and senators, to speak up for nurturing and life-giving services for all of our children, including those with special needs, with the same tenacity and good will with which we protect our public-safety systems, roadways and pensions. There will be great societal benefit from doing so.
Lewis P. Lipsitt is professor emeritus of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University where he founded, and directed, the Child Study Center. Grace Baron is a professor of psychology at Wheaton College, in Norton.
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