By Emma Young
Dr. Mary Lopez knows the challenges of living with a disability. Prior to being diagnosed in the 1970s with multiple sclerosis, she went to her physician when one entire leg went numb. Shockingly, the doctor dismissed this alarming symptom, saying, “What you need is a good man to come home to and give you a massage.” She’s been fighting for
the rights of the disabled ever since.
Lopez is now executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center (IEC), based in Manassas. The IEC is a nonprofit advocacy and service organization by and for people with disabilities. Lopez works full-time with a team to help county residents navigate life with a disability. That may involve everything from helping a parent with an IEP (individualized education program) for their child, to talking to a convenience store about its lack of wheelchair accessibility.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 13 percent of Prince William County residents noted having a disability. However, the “2013 Greater Prince William Community Needs Assessment” stated, “The number is more likely considerably higher, due to under-reporting, and should reflect a national average closer to 19 percent.” In the 25th anniversary year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal civil-rights law prohibiting discrimination against and imposing accessibility requirements for those with disabilities, Prince William Living overviews living with a disability in the county today.
Early Education Intervention Matters
When a parent suspects early in a child’s life there may be a developmental problem or disability, help is available. According to the “2013 Greater Prince William Community Needs Assessment”: “Early intervention (EI) services for children with disabilities are highly successful in our community…60 percent of the children completing early intervention services do not require special education once admitted to the school system.” EI includes speech and physical therapy, occupational therapy, vision and hearing services, and other programs, and the process for enrolling a child is relatively straightforward.
“The first step is to check the C.D.C. website to find out if a child is meeting milestones for their age. Then go to their regular physician and bring a list of concerns. If there are issues, contact Early Intervention if a child is less than two, or Child Find if a child is aged two to five,” explained Roberta McEachern, IEC program director. “They’ll identify the needs and help provide the necessary support and intervention.”
Transition to School
Professional services may be helpful when transitioning a child to a school environment. Erin Clemens, an occupational therapist with Pediatric Achievements in Lake Ridge, described a kindergarten preparation class they operate: “The class assists a child with a disability by being in a small group setting with typically developing peers so they can increase social skills, motor skills, improve their ability to follow directions, and essentially function independently in a small group because they have peer role models. Having the groups run by occupational therapists is a huge bonus because it is a safe and positive environment with trained professionals who understand and know how to deal effectively with different behaviors.”
The process is more challenging for school-aged children. “First talk to the teacher, the principal and the school psychologist. Tell them you want to start testing on your child,” McEachern said. Testing indicates whether a child needs greater or varying support. “Then get the IEP started. Spell out everything you might need, including things like potty training, speech assistance, more time on tests, a scribe to take notes or a peer with them,” she said. She described a relationship of peer mentoring that is beneficial in some cases. “One child needs extra credit and one child needs assistance—for example, carrying books, taking things out, getting from point A to point B and not getting lost.”
Having an IEP in place doesn’t solve all challenges, however. “The needs of one student may vary tremendously from those of another. It is important to make sure that we can meet the needs of students with behavioral, physical, emotional and learning challenges. Our staff is resourceful and dedicated,” said Jane Lawson, director of special education for Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS).
Annually, the current average is about 1,500 requests for assistance, which may include testing and IEPs, according to Lawson. “Currently we have 9,848 active IEPs.” It is close to the national average of about 12 percent, but varies year-to-year, Lawson said.
“Our biggest challenge is funding. We have taxpayer dollars to spend on meeting the needs of all our students. This means providing special programs for gifted and talented students, artists, athletes, or students with special needs (some of whom may also be part of the other categories). Regrettably, increases in funding have been insufficient to keep pace with the combined cost of growth and inflation,” said Phil Kavits, director of communication services for PWCS.
Despite budget woes, there are many successes. McEachern described one: “In one school, we have two children that have a speaking device and an eye-gaze machine. They’re nonverbal and wheelchair users. The teacher researched and found out about a speaking device. To speak, they stare at the device. It gave them a voice. One student is now a straight-A student. It opened up their whole world.”
Integration, not Isolation
Modern artist John Holohan of Haymarket-based Cerebral Palsy Art, who uses a wheelchair, described his educational experience in PWCS: “When I was in school years ago, they stuffed me in the special ed room when the regular kids were in PE and told me to study. Inclusion is the best way to go.”
“One school had children for two grade [levels]with a severe and profound disability isolated in the basement in the back of the school, confined to two classrooms. No integration, until one of our parents complained so much the problem was rectified,” McEachern said.
“Secluding [children]and keeping them only with others with\ disabilities can make things worse. If you’ve got one verbal child in with a lot of people that are not verbal, they’ll stop using their verbal abilities. Children learn best from their peers,” she said.
Students: Transitioning from School to Work
When preparing to graduate, what programs are available to assist with a transition to work? Lawson described PWCS administration offices successfully hosting graduating students. They recently had a student who is blind and completed a semester in their office as a transition-to-work activity.
Another innovative program is Project SEARCH, a collaborative effort between the Virginia Department of Aging and
Rehabilitative Services (DARS), the Virginia Department ofEducation, Novant Prince William Medical Center in Manassas and PWCS. The program enables graduating students to gain valuable work experience and skills through internship and vocational training. According to Matthew Deans, the supported employment and project SEARCH coordinator for DARS, 10 local students are chosen each year for the program. Twenty-one have been employed as a result. “The students who participate and become successfully employed are very satisfied with the program as it’s helped them to learn to be independent, take care of themselves and be responsible workers in the community,” Deans said.
According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, in an employment to population comparison, 17.1 percent of people with a disability were employed, versus 64.6 for those without a disability. The Manassas-based nonprofit Didlake Inc., is working to change that. “Our primary focus is on supporting people with disabilities in their effort to become working people,” explained Betty Dean, vice president for corporate communications and development. “Almost all of the people we support are either employed out in the community, working for another business, or they are an employee of Didlake and they’re part of a workforce we maintain,” Dean said. Didlake employees provide contracted services as custodians for the Pentagon, groundskeepers at BWI and at other sites. “Seventy-five to eighty percent of our contracted services employees are people with significant disabilities,” she said.
When someone with a disability comes to the firm for assistance, Didlake conducts an in-depth assessment of skills, aptitudes and needs. “We are one of the leading programs in Virginia providing employment support services for people with disabilities. That’s in part because we do a really good job of putting the right person in the right job, so that person has every opportunity to be successful. And, the business benefits from having that person there. The business gets a person for whom this job opportunity is the chance of a lifetime. They voluntarily give up a government disability check for work and a paycheck. Instead of a recipient of tax dollars, they pay tax dollars,” Dean said.
In the fiscal year ending in 2015, Didlake provided support or employment to 444 people with disabilities in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park. That support includes providing assistance in creating resumes, behavioral support, adaptive technology (for example, providing a mobile device to track daily tasks for someone with memory loss), and identifying potential employers and jobs.
Finding a job is not the only challenge, though. “A huge barrier for people with disabilities of any kind, including the elderly and the infirm, is transportation,” Dean said. “If you can’t get to the job, it doesn’t matter if you could do the job.”
Holohan summed up the challenge of transportation: “If you can’t get anywhere, you can’t become a productive member of society. You’re just a shut-in.”
Public Transportation: A Critical Need
The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) provides local bus services (OmniLink) and commuter bus services (OmniRide) in the county. People like Manassas resident and retired employee for the City of Manassas Sharon Bauer rely upon these public bus services. “I depend on buses about four days a week and would really be hurting without them. Within the last few years, PWC finally has accessible cabs. I do use them, but they are about ten times the cost of buses,” she said.
Although it is difficult to know how many persons with disabilities use public services, some statistics provide insight. “With flex-routing, buses can go up to three-quarters of a mile off the standard route to pick up or drop off passengers,” explained Eric Marx, interim executive director of PRTC. Able-bodied persons pay a surcharge for these off-route trips, and persons with disabilities are provided the service for free.
“OmniLink buses made an average of 1,814 off-route trips per month in fiscal year 2015,” Marx said, including both those who paid the surcharge and those with disabilities. PRTC currently has 2,360 active reduced fare cards that were issued to individuals with disabilities.
A variety of technologies and services enables the public bus system to be accessible to people with varying types of disabilities: ramps and lifts, announcements and written displays for upcoming stops, a website with text-to-speech technology and reduced fares. “The services are crucial, enabling those with disabilities to get access to medical care, work, school and daily errands,” Marx said. Yet budget cuts also threaten these services.
“At a time when the demand for public transit is increasing, PRTC is currently projected to have a $7 million deficit for FY 17, which begins July 2016,” Marx explained. The problem is essentially economic. The primary source of funding for PRTC is the 2.1% fuel tax. As prices plunge at the pump, funding for public transport decreases. Additional revenue used to come from the county general fund, but when the recession hit, the county
cut that funding in 2008 and it hasn’t been restored since. “Unless additional funding is provided to cover all or a portion of the shortfall, PRTC will be forced to make cuts to its commuter and local bus services starting in July 2016,” Marx said.
Scenarios that have been outlined include cutting services across-the-board, eliminating local services, or cutting services by half, all scenarios of great concern to county residents, but particularly to those who use the services. Public transportation is life-saving for Bauer: “If I could not depend on the buses to help me maintain my independence, being housebound would shorten my life and have a negative impact on the quality of my life. I
cringe at the thought of being housebound.”
It’s Not the Bus, But It’s an Option
In 2013, Yellow Cab of Prince William purchased four accessible vehicles and now four additional ones have been placed into service. Despite the cost being two to three times more than a sedan, and one and a half times more than a non-accessible van, company president Tammy Beard said that “it was the right thing to do.” They now provide over 500 accessible trips a month. It’s made a difference. Beard described one woman “unable to access the local bus stop due to the conditions and topography. She now uses our service to get to the commuter lot and has returned to work three days a week.”
Housing Options in the Community
Housing, too, can be an issue for the disabled. Jennifer Bolles, executive director of Project Mend-A-House (PMAH), a nonprofit based in Manassas, explained how they serve those with disabilities. “Our mission is to help low-income people with disabilities, seniors and veterans remain safely and independently in their homes. We do this through a variety of services that make their homes more livable, safe and accessible.” For example, volunteers will install grab bars in bathrooms, perform minor home repairs, and loan durable medical equipment such as walkers. “Services are provided free of charge to income-qualified clients,” Bolles said. Those services, and the volunteers to provide them are desperately needed. “Each year PMAH helps close to 200 low-income community residents and provides over 500 service-related tasks to our clients,” she said.
There are many in the county with severe disabilities or complex medical problems that require more in-depth care.
The Woodbridge-based nonprofit The Arc, provides a variety of services for those with disabilities, including childcare, vocational and family-support services. According to Karen Smith, Arc executive director, the services most in demand are residential services.
Chris Caseman, Arc director of resource development, explained. “We have 16 group homes. They become the homes of our residents for the rest of their life.” There are difficulties however. “Our biggest challenge is residential services because we’re responsible for someone’s life 24/7. Some residents have pretty intensive needs, especially medically, with multiple doctor’s appointments throughout the week,” Smith said.
The Arc is committed to and known for high-quality care despite the challenges. “We go bowling, on trips, and shopping, and all sorts of things that make sure our residents have a very active and recreational lifestyle,” Caseman said.
Funding in Virginia for these types of intensive services comes from Medicaid Waiver approved service slots. “In the
commonwealth of Virginia there are thousands waiting for Medicaid Waiver Services. A person with a disability gets put on a wait-list, and over 11,000 are waiting in Virginia, and two-thirds are on an urgent list,” said Smith.
Emma Young ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother residing in Dumfries.