By SAMANTHA MORGAN
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Twenty-six years ago, then-President Ronald Reagan issued a national proclamation naming March as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. This year, Gov. Bob McDonnell made a similar declaration in Virginia.
“As people with developmental disabilities successfully engage in these aspects of society and live more productive, fuller lives in their own communities, we begin to see what they are capable of, instead of taking a limited view of what they cannot do,” McDonnell said in a press release last week.
The governor’s proclamation noted that more than 144,000 adults and children in Virginia have developmental disabilities. At the local level, many of those individuals and their families receive help from one of Virginia’s Community Services Boards.
In addition, the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities serves as the state’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Each state has such a council under the federal Developmental Disabilities Act of 2000. The councils advocate for individuals with disabilities. They help ensure that disabled people are integrated into schools, work, recreation and other aspects of life.
Heidi Lawyer, the executive director of the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities, said McDonnell has been committed to individuals with disabilities as well as mental illness for a long time.
“We are appreciative of the proclamation issued by Gov. McDonnell. Not only does it reinforce his commitment to full inclusion for individuals with developmental disabilities, it celebrates the valuable contributions that people with developmental disabilities bring to our communities and the importance of respecting differing abilities and diversity,” Lawyer said.
The VBPD and other state councils help individuals with developmental disabilities in the legal system as well as in their personal and public lives.
“Developmental Disabilities Councils are fortunate in that they have the authority under federal law to educate policymakers. As a result, we are able and have a responsibility to push the envelope on issues of importance to our constituents,” Lawyer said.
Every three years, as required by law, the VBPD conducts an assessment of services and support available to individuals with developmental disabilities. The assessment gathers data on many areas of life, including transportation, education, employment and housing, and identifies strengths and weaknesses in the system. The next assessment will be published in 2014.
“The board then makes recommendations for system improvement for consideration by the governor, the secretary of health and human resources, members of the General Assembly, and leadership of executive branch agencies,” Lawyer said.
“The goal is to influence policy and practice. And while our funding and authority under the Developmental Disabilities Act is for persons with developmental disabilities, a great deal of the information in the assessment is of use to individuals with all types of disabilities.”
Lawyer praised the work of the governor and the General Assembly but said there is still a long way to go.
According to the VBPD’s 2011 assessment, “Virginia has ranked among the top ten states in per capita income since 2004. In contrast, Virginia consistently ranks near the bottom among the states in its level of fiscal effort on behalf of services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Over the next year, the VBPD will work on the next assessment and continue its advocacy training programs, Partners in Policymaking and Youth Leadership Forum. “Virginians with developmental and other disabilities direct their own lives and choose how they live, learn, work and play,” Lawyer said.
Advocacy groups such as The Arc of Virginia also see room for improvement, even as they praised state officials for moving the state toward a community-based system of support for people with disabilities.
“While progress has been made, there is still work to do. Virginia must ensure that all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, regardless of the complexity of their needs, have access to integrated, community based services,” The Arc of Virginia said in a statement.