Pa. does not take a one-size-fits-all approach to disability services | Opinion

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By Kristin Ahrens

A Sept. 2 Capital-Star  op-Ed suggests that the Department of Human Services’  Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) is limiting choice for Pennsylvanians with autism and intellectual disabilities. In fact, our goal is to expand choice for individuals, and we appreciate the opportunity to provide clarification.

The op-Ed purports that any setting serving people with intellectual disabilities or autism (the author specifically mentions newly opened residential spaces, vocational, and recreational services) is limited to three participants. This is not accurate.

In 2019, ODP promulgated revised Chapter 6100 of the Human Services Code after a years-long process that included extensive stakeholder engagement. These regulations limit new residential homes to four or fewer residents, and day programs are limited to 25 or fewer participants at any one time.

The column contends that no more than three people with autism or an intellectual disability can be in a space like a restaurant, office, or gym at one time. In fact, there is no regulation prohibiting people with disabilities from gathering in groups of more than three people in any context.

There is no prohibition on a person celebrating a birthday with a dozen or more friends with disabilities at a day facility or their home or anywhere, as this column erroneously suggests.

The column makes an incorrect, broad generalization by applying a specific billing policy for a service called “Community Participation Supports.”

As the name suggests, the objective of the Community Participation Supports service is to assist individuals with engagement in integrated community activities. Because the objective of this service is integration, billing rules specify that a provider may not serve more than three people at a time.  No one is required to use this service, and there are a number of alternative services that people can choose if preferred.

Like anyone else, people with disabilities have unique needs, interests, and goals. ODP strives every day to honor the people we serve as individuals, and to empower them to pursue their interests and goals through a variety of available services.

An individual and their family can choose from self-directed services where a person can literally hire and directly manage their own direct support professionals, or they could choose services from agencies that employ direct support professionals.

People with intellectual disabilities and autism receive services in every type of setting, including their own homes, their family homes, their communities, licensed residential homes, and intermediate care facilities.

The system is certainly not perfect, and we continually strive to improve it, but the system is designed to take a person-centered individualized approach with each person who comes to us with a need for services.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the array of services and service models offered by ODP is testament to that.

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ODP’s work is built on the foundation of the Everyday Lives philosophy, which simply means that people with disabilities are deserving of an everyday life with opportunities, relationships, rights, and responsibilities. People with disabilities should be included in all parts of society, and this philosophy guides the Wolf Administration’s work to make that possible.

The Wolf administration is committed to supporting and facilitating opportunities for people with disabilities to be healthy, safe, and active participants in their communities.

To date, this administration has made an unprecedented investment in home and community-based services for people with intellectual disabilities and autism, providing services to 5,425 people who were on the waiting list.

It’s no secret that, at one point, people with disabilities were largely segregated from society in large institutions. As the deinstitutionalization movement accelerated, many adults went to large day programs that were still mostly separated from the broader community.

We have made great progress toward inclusion of our fellow Pennsylvanians with disabilities since then, but progress is a journey. Children and young adults today grew up under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. Participation in schools and communities is both a norm and an expectation for people with disabilities aging into the adult service system.

We must continue to evolve so all Pennsylvanians with disabilities have the opportunity and support they need to be fully integrated members of their community, and the Wolf administration will continue to work toward this goal.

Kristin Ahrens is the deputy secretary for developmental programs at the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. She writes from Harrisburg.