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The disabling truth: Fixing the transition for handicapped people from high school to adulthood

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Photo courtesy of Russell Nesbitt Services Photo courtesy of Russell Nesbitt Services
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There's a lot of pressure on students these days to immediately choose the roads they want to follow.

But, does that mean it has to be the road less traveled?

Graduating seniors can be tormented with questions: Go to college? Start a family? Get a job? The questions immediately bombard the average high school graduate. 

But what if that child has a mental or physical disability? What is a person with special needs to do in the Mountain State when it comes to the transition from public school to adulthood?

One company in Wheeling is trying to help families with that process.

"Every day is a reward," said Brian Breyer, executive director at Russell Nesbitt Services, or RNS. "The reason I say that is because you have helped someone achieve a goal every day. 

"Just because that person has a disability they're still a person — entitled to the same quality of life that everyone else is."

Offering help

However, one of the biggest challenges in helping a person with special needs lies in the services private providers are able to give.

These providers offer services that can include a career path for an individual graduating high school. When the businesses are given funding and jump through the proper hoops, private providers offer opportunities for individuals with disabilities to enhance their career growth and potential. Often the individuals with disabilities are able to be placed in jobs that fit their needs and offers them something they are able to accomplish through a day's work.

An example of a service that does just that is the Russell Nesbitt Services WATCH (Wheeling Area Training Center for the Handicapped) team. Team members attend meetings to discuss a student's Individualized Education Program, or IEP, one year before the student is set to graduate.

Andrea Pack, a community outreach coordinator, said IEP meetings allow the team to access each individual need for students with disabilities who still need to plan for their futures.

"What's the next step, treatment program," Pack said. "We can plan that out for appropriate services for when they do graduate."

Breyer said it isn't always easy to help students.

The largest challenge, Breyer said, is the cost. Specifically, the current waiver list and wait list for the state of West Virginia. More than 800 individuals currently are on the waiver list, and some of those people have applied for or been approved for money. However, if the students are not next on the list for financial support, they aren't able to be helped.

"There's always apprehension attached," he said. "If they've chosen our agency for services — it's a waiver issue. Services are no longer in school but with the agency."

RNS pays its bills according to the reimbursements it gets from the Medicaid payments a person receives after he or she gets a job. While RNS provides those services, the lists don't coincide, so sometimes it's difficult for RNS to be paid, Breyer said.

These services are not just provided in Wheeling. Other providers include The Hancock Opportunity Center, a center in the Greenbrier Valley and PACE Enterprises in Morgantown, among others.

Small company makes headway

Ian Rudick lives in Clarksburg where he started a business he named Come From the Heart.

Rudick works with a young man who has autism and puts magnets on bottle caps.

"When I get orders they make good money, but we haven't had a lot of orders," Rudick said of his employees with special needs.

Rudick said state lawmakers might not be doing their part to come up with real solutions to help children and adults with developmental disabilities in the Mountain State.

"It seems like it's all about bureaucracy and keeping people safe, but you aren't really keeping them safe," he said. 

It is his belief organizations offering help to the disabled say they're doing things to help people become more independent, but instead are fostering dependence.

Rudick said smaller organizations like his do not receive some of the benefits that larger companies are able to lobby for — such as gaining attention for more funding.

He also is concerned with the way families are not always willing to ask for the help they need.

Rudick said families are left without services because they don't know how to manipulate the system. They also are hesitant to "denigrate" their children in order to document their need for services, he said.

"Some people are smothered with services because they are for-profit entities that know about the system," Rudick said.

There is a tremendous amount of federal and state funding being wasted, he said.

"There are some people with massive amounts of services," he explained.

However, the smaller non-profit organizations lack funding because they aren't documenting their need as well as the for-profit entities, he added.

Statistics on disabilities

Nearly 54 million Americans cope with some form of a handicap, according to the National Organization of Disability.

In West Virginia, there are nearly 134,000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 years old who are diagnosed with a cognitive disability.

Nearly one-fifth of American men, women and children have a physical, sensory or intellectual disability, which adds up to more than 54 million people nationwide.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that more than 41 million Americans or about 15 percent of the U.S. population over the age of five have some type of disability.

Brent Bush, senior vice president of Security National Trust Co. in Wheeling, said planning is the most crucial aspect of helping a child with special needs.

Bush advocates on behalf of his company, but also has personal ties to the matter.

"Planning and foresight is vital to viability of someone with special needs," Bush said. "Some people oversee or don't always appreciate (the importance of planning)."

Bush said family issues such as guardianship and health care needs further underscore the need for programs like RNS.

Thanks to federal legislation, Bush said students in America have appropriate education free of cost. So they should have the same rights to a job after that education, disability or not, he concluded.

"With proper planning, people who spend countless hours, (helping those with disabilities find a path) can lead to solid employment and a more satisfactory life," he said.

Legal look at impact

At the conclusion of the 2014 regular legislative session, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin included in his veto of the budget bill for the 2015 Fiscal Year the elimination of programs including those specifically related to women and children, as well as special needs programs.

Under the veto, Tomblin eliminated $150,464 from the statewide Family Resource Networks. The network is a coalition across the state that works to improve services for children and families in various communities. The FRNs assess community needs, develop local plans, promote changes, evaluate results and assist agencies in improving the service of delivery systems. They are meant to coordinate services and promote opportunities for families to impact decisions that affect them specifically, which can sometimes be what's available for special needs children in the Mountain State.

Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, said he has been involved in special education law practices as an attorney for about 14 years.

"Anytime parents disagree with services or placement, evaluation or eligibility of a student, they have the opportunity to enforce their rights under federal law," Lane said.

That's where he comes in.

He said although federal laws are in place to protect a child's rights, there are always ways to improve the state's laws.

One such law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is a federal law that is meant to determine how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to children with special needs. The legislation addresses the education needs of children with disabilities from ages 3 to 18 or 21 (in cases that involve 14 specific categories of disability).

As a lawmaker, Lane said West Virginia has not gone above and beyond protecting children with disabilities.

He said part of the reason why he and others can begin to improve current laws has to do with the changing social perception of children with disabilities.

"In the last 20 years, societal thinking has changed," Lane said.

However, he believes taxpayers will be largely impacted in the future by those growing up with special needs now. Lane said the laws need to change to improve the way the autistic spectrum is looked at.

"Anytime we can provide educational skills to children to be on their own it's a good policy decision," Lane said. "Certain rights need to be enforced and protected."