Opinion Columns & Blogs

Job is not done yet

During InterHab's annual conference in Wichita later this week, we will celebrate our 40th anniversary. Founded in 1969 as the Kansas Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, InterHab now enters its fifth decade promoting services and supports for persons with developmental disabilities.

Our birthday celebrates a great journey in which more progress occurred for persons with developmental disabilities than in all the previous centuries of human history. Families, civic leaders, state and county officials, and professionals for the first time opened Kansas communities to persons who had been hidden by centuries of discrimination and neglect.

Literally, thanks to thousands of caring hands and voices and hearts, the world has changed.

In 1969, the state's programs were invested in four large institutions. Many thousands of Kansans had been sent to these institutions beginning in the 1800s, because (their families were told) these were the only places for persons with developmental disabilities.

Kansas families in 1969, if they chose to raise their child at home, had to fend for themselves. Community programs were scarce. Schools were still not required to educate children with developmental disabilities, and those that did so were rare.

In the 40 years since, laws were passed to protect the rights of persons with developmental disabilities. Families founded organizations to build community support for services. Our members emerged in the sunlight of this new day, a new field of professionals, a new service network, serving persons never before served in the community.

Today, all privately run institutions are gone from Kansas. The thousands of beds in our state-run institutions have been reduced to about 300, and most of those will be gone soon. Schools are open to kids with disabilities. Gainful employment is a reality. Independent living is an increasingly attainable goal.

So why are we deeply concerned about the future?

Blame it our "youth," perhaps. In a field as young as ours, maybe we should be patient. Some policymakers have suggested we be grateful that we can celebrate the great accomplishments of so many persons, so many communities and so many organizations. (In fact, we do celebrate, daily, for the millions of successes that occur.)

But progress for some is not a good reason to ignore the painful lack of opportunity for others.

The hope that was born in the hearts of Kansas families to whom a child was born with disabilities is being strangled once again as more than 4,000 Kansans with developmental disabilities are on a waiting list for services. Young men and women leaving special education are now graduating not to meaningful employment opportunities but, too often, to their living room sofa. Thousands of community service workers struggle to do their jobs while trying themselves to survive on the lowest end of the wage scale.

Clearly, the fight for dignity and equity and equality is not over.

The state doesn't create waiting lists for kindergarten when times are right, nor do we stop bridge building halfway across a river, nor do we dangerously shrink the size of highways to save money. Neither should we allow 40 years of progress for Kansans with disabilities to be lost in the current climate of political paralysis.

The building of the bridge from our shameful past to an enlightened future must be completed.

InterHab is proud to be a part of the process by which Kansans with disabilities have come to their rightful places in society. We look forward to the years ahead as a time for renewal of our state's energies to continue to move forward until the job is done.