OPINION: Empowering families and individuals with developmental disabilities throughout Washington state (Rep. Maureen Walsh)

 By Rep. Maureen Walsh

Parents of individuals with developmental disabilities and special needs can often feel isolated and without support. Parents entering a new chapter of their lives who receive a diagnosis of a developmental disability sometimes are at a loss as for where to turn for information and support. Fortunately, there’s been movement nationally and in Washington state to improve the quality of life for individuals with developmental disabilities.

As a mother of a child with special needs, and as a legislator privileged to serve as the ranking member on the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, I’ve spent years in Olympia working on solutions that empower individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.

This session, I’ve sponsored two bills that connect parents of children with special needs to important resources, and help individuals with developmental disabilities navigate employment and community access services.

Parent to Parent program

The Parent to Parent program is a national nonprofit that supports parents of children with special needs by creating a parent network. New parents are matched with volunteer, veteran parents of children with similar needs who can provide emotional support and help connect new parents to important resources. Many of the programs also offer educational training and workshops.

The program currently operates in 31 of 39 Washington counties, but many have very limited budgets with only a parent  or two operating the program. It costs very little and will provide a tremendous return on investment for our families with special-needs children.

Statewide, the program has proven essential for many families. We should continue with that success, and expand this program to the remaining eight counties in the state. My bill, House Bill 2394, would do just that.

The legislation received overwhelming support in the House and passed 93-3, and will be considered in the Senate.

Community access services

Currently, Developmental Disability Administration (DDA) clients who are working-age adults must complete nine months of an employment service before transitioning to community access services. While this policy is undoubtedly well-intended and has been successful for a number of individuals, it caters primarily to individuals who have less severe disabilities. The current policy leaves individuals with more acute disabilities struggling for nine months before they are allowed to participate in community access services.

My House Bill 2790 would expand opportunities for exceptions to the nine-month employment requirement by requiring DDA to take additional factors into consideration when determining if an exception is warranted. It would also ensure individuals know exceptions are possible.

This is an important step to ensure individuals with developmental disabilities have choice and receive necessary services. Currently, about 3,000 individuals are not receiving either employment or community access services. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work when we are dealing with our citizens who have a spectrum of disabilities. Family choice is essential in determining what is the best fit for each individual. Quality of life should be the goal for all.

Unfortunately, my bill will not likely advance this session, but I am committed to continuing my work on this issue over interim.

###
Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, serves as the ranking member of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, which considers issues relating to early learning from birth to kindergarten and a range of issues affecting children and families.