Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act to be at forefront of PA plans for students, adults with disabilities

Photo from Facebook Bollinger Enterprises is working on transitioning clients ahead of changes to state service definitions.

Transitions are coming for students and adults with intellectual disabilities.

While students in the Warren County School District are being offered Pre-Employment Transition Services through a service provider from Bollinger Enterprises (BEI) — with approval from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the changes in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) also need to address adults with intellectual disabilities who have long been graduated from high school.

Most of those adults, up to now, have worked in sheltered workshops — state-licensed facilities like BEI, which is a local provider of what the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) calls “pre-vocational employment” and “community habilitation.”

The elimination of those two service definitions, according to Ronna Tipton, Developmental Disabilities Associate Director at Forest-Warren Human Services, comes with a replacement service that ODP calls “community participation.”

“The expectation is (that) over the course of the next 18 months — July 2017 through January 2019 — our individuals will gradually spend more of their day in the community and less time at the facility until 75 percent of their time is in the community,” said Tipton.

“p1″>The executive order from Governor Tom Wolf, called “Employment First,” aims to increase the hiring of Pennsylvanians with disabilities  by promoting improved competitive-integrated employment standards.

The ultimate goal is to make Pennsylvania a model state when it comes to creating a climate hospitable to workers with a disability. The order calls for a phase-in of standards, requiring 25 percent of an individual’s time to be in community locations and “hubs,” as opposed to non-integrated, non-competitive sheltered workshops, by Jan. 1 of 2018. That number rises to 50 percent by July 1, 2018, and to 75 percent by Jan. 1 of 2019.

“The misconception by families,” said Tipton, is that ODP is looking to shut sheltered workshops down, and that is not the case.

“There are several reasons why this is occurring, but the major one,” Tipton said, is the goal of Pennsylvania to “come into compliance with the federal rule stating individuals with disabilities must have inclusion in the community to the same degree as those individuals not receiving our services. In order to maintain the funding for this service, as well as other ID services, there really is no choice. There is, however, an exception process for those individuals that, due to medical conditions, behavioral issues, or mental health concerns, may be exempt from reaching the 75 percent requirement. that process has not been released as of yet,” said Tipton, “so it would be speculation at this point as to how that will look. If this change is approved by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), it would take effect July 1, 2017.”

Dr. William Clark, Executive Director of BEI, has reservations about the expectations laid out by the executive order.

A former superintendent of the Warren County School District, Clark said, “the percentages outlined remind me of the percentages in No Child Left Behind where every student was to be proficient by 2013-2014.

“As with No Child Left Behind,” said Clark, ODP Person/Family Direct Support Waivers — those due for renewal on July 1 of this year — “assign percentages to individuals to be placed in competitive integrated employment and community integrated settings. Each adult with a developmental or intellectual disability is different in their own unique abilities. To apply a percentage of time over a three-phase process is a step backwards. Percentages should be determined as Individual Support Plan teams work with the individual to identify areas of competitive integrated employment.”

Clark does not oppose the general goal of integration and more competitive employment for individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities, he said.

“As a father of a son who is on the autism spectrum and executive director of BEI, I am excited to see the movement towards competitive integrated employment,” said Clark. “I am optimistic that when my son turns 18, employment opportunities will be available to him,” Clark wrote in a letter to Senator Scott Hutchinson and Representative Kathy Rapp. “But,” he continued, “I am also cautious knowing how these regulations are implemented by institutions such as BEI, and community employers will place a trail for individuals like my son.”

Clark’s concern is that while WIOA is a federal law, the 25-50-75 percentages “are coming from the (state) Department of Human Services waiver renewal proposal that includes these limitations.”

They are not, he said, the percentages laid out by the federal law (WIOA).

The waiver proposal, said Clark, “is a state proposal that DHS does not have to do. The state representatives indeed could do something by communicating their concerns to the governor and Secretary (Ted) Dallas, and put whatever political pressure they deem appropriate to get DHS to strike the percentage-of-time limits from their waiver proposal before they submit to to CMS in mid to late March.”

One parent whose daughter attends the sheltered workshop at BEI said she’s concerned about the changes.

“p1″>”Because of our child’s disability,” she said, “routines are important, change is difficult, she struggles with social skills and her ability to keep herself safe are concerns we have if she would be working outside the workshop. How are employers going to know how to work with her and accommodate for the patience and extra time that is needed to make her successful.  What things would be in place to keep her safe and not a victim in a competitive employment setting?  Do I think she would be a good employee, would she do the best job she can do, would she be dependable? Absolutely to all three.   Would she need help navigating in a competitive employment setting? Definitely.  We all know things change all the time, situations are different and things happen.  So what kind of guidelines will there be for employers who hire people with disabilities to ensure success is achieved and our concerns are addressed?   

“Government says that they want to implement this competitive employment but where are the guidelines?

“p1″>”Our daughter does not drive. Transportation is an issue as we do not live by any public transportation and she could not walk because we do not live in the city of Warren.  Currently, BEI provides transportation to and from the workshop.  This has helped her gain some independence.  She has a routine in the mornings, knows what to do and is ready when the bus comes to pick her up.”

Denny Bonavita, whose son Greg is 39 years old and lives in a group home, works at the BEI sheltered workshop. Greg has Down Syndrome, and Bonavita said that he fits a “textbook” definition of the term. “IQ in the 50’s, poor speech, poor fine motor skills, some genetic physical handicaps (he must use a walker to walk) — and a great memory, a wicked sense of humor and a usually cheerful dispositions. He loves people and he loves the independence of ‘going to work’ and ‘my own paycheck.’ He can sight-read, e.g., “stop” and “mens room,” etc., but cannot read for comprehension.”

Bonavita explains all this about Greg to illustrate the unique challenges and strengths of the many individuals who would be affected by this change in regulation.

“Evidently,” said Bonavita, “state and federal officials now think that people with disabilities such as Greg’s should be integrated into the community while at work, instead of working in separate ‘sheltered’ facilities. This is a laudable effort to be inclusive and to make people with disabilities be even more a part of our communities. However, as always, ‘the devil is in the details,'” said Bonavita.

At worst, said Bonavita, “the new philosophy says ‘put them to work at Wal-Mart.'”

His son, Bonavita said, “cannot make change. He understands that money has value, but will sign a blank check for anyone or give anyone all his money if asked. He also does not react to crises quickly. If we touch a hot flame, we recoil. Greg stands there for a moment, then recoils. Ditto for fire alarms, etc. He can function, but he needs supervision. So at worst, the new philosophy,” Bonavita said, “exposes people like Greg to abuse, injury, sexual assault, even death…” Problems with the proposed integration, said Bonavita, “include the need for greater physical safeguards around machinery…bullying, being taken advantage of, being ridiculed as ‘retards,’ that sort of thing.”

“As a parent,” said Bonavita, “my first instinct is to keep my son safe, which means keep him where he is. But then again, when he was in elementary school, his mother Nancy (now deceased) and I went through the agony of teaching him, a house at a time, how to walk back and forth from school, because Greg should live. He should not simply exist, wrapped in Saran Wrap, and sat on a self.

“So,” said Bonavita, “my reaction to the new plans is only slightly exaggerated when I say, ‘I’m fearful and doubtful but you folks are the experts, so go ahead. Just know that if my son is hurt or killed, I’ll assemble a nuclear bomb and drop it on your house.’ Since I nearly flunked Physics, that threat is empty. But you get the idea.”