Just Leave the Special Olympics Alone

By Mike Hyland, President and CEO

The 2020 federal budget proposal contains countless line items and notations, as is expected in any document so large and overwhelming.  Even in all that minutiae however, one particularly disgraceful item stands out: the call to eliminate all funding for Special Olympics.  Once again it seems that people with disabilities are in danger of being cast aside and left behind so that money can go to others.  Enough already! 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed a budget that would end federal funding for Special Olympics.  As offensive as that proposal is all on its own, her rationale for minimizing the importance of this intentional neglect is absurd.  DeVos stated that Special Olympics “is well supported by the philanthropic community”.  This is true but what the secretary is missing is the whole point of a not-for-profit status.  The Special Olympics, just like provider agencies, is permitted by law to fundraise because the government readily admits that the work is underfunded in the first place.  Taking away those relatively few dollars is a public rejection by DeVos and others of the value of Special Olympics and other organizations that support people with disabilities.  In fact, her proposal would negatively affect close to 300,00 children across the country.

So why is Special Olympics so important?  Because since the ‘60’s, the organization has opened doors and opportunities for people with disabilities in ways that never existed before.  These people were finally given the chance to participate in organized activities that improve health, confidence, and self-esteem while at the same time creating genuine relationships and inclusion.  People with disabilities who were shuttered away for so long now have a bevy of programing choices that span across the world and offer participation and achievement for individuals who were denied these opportunities for generations.  Special Olympics has also worked tirelessly to confront and end the stigma that people with disabilities have always had to endure, giving them a public platform to celebrate their efforts and successes.  It is truly baffling that some in government would choose to make this work even harder than it already is.

Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual step from Secretary DeVos and the administration in D.C.  It’s the 3rd year in a row they’ve proposed slashing funding for Special Olympics, though the first attempt to end funding outright.  It’s difficult to fathom just what those people have against people with disabilities.  The almost $18 million spent annually on Special Olympics is irrelevant in the $4 trillion federal budget, making the annual attack on this crucial funding even more ridiculous.  It’s time that those in power stop seeing the disabilities community as low hanging fruit for budget cuts.  Thankfully, the proposal is not very likely to pass in Congress when the budget is finally done.  What’s troubling, however, is the yearly need to still stand up and try to defend the relative pittance that an organization like Special Olympics gets from the government to provide precious opportunities for so many people.

ANCOR Advocacy Week

This week is Advocacy Week at ANCOR, our national trade association that represents more than 1,400 community providers of services to people with disabilities.  We are joining them in bringing much-needed attention to the issues that are facing the human services industry today – most notably, the workforce crisis in disability supports.

It is important to us to highlight the good work being done by the professionals in our industry every day – yet high turnover rate is destabilizing critical supports for individuals with disabilities.  Recruitment and retention challenges are leaving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities vulnerable to losing support in the most important aspects of their lives – work, home and health.

Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) are the lifeline of the industry.  They are frontline staff who are providing emotional support, facilitating recreational opportunities, teaching essential life skills, administering medical interventions, communicating with healthcare providers and families, and offering the support required for folks with disabilities to live as independently as possible. 

These professionals, funded primarily through Medicaid, help people live life like everyone else.  They accomplish this through job coaching, supporting daily activities like grocery shopping or transportation, and by offering critical care for behavioral needs such as helping someone through an anxiety attack.

Despite all this, difficulties attracting and retaining DSPs have reached a crisis level:

  • The national DSP turnover rate is 45%
  • 55% of DSPs who leave their positions do so within their first year on the job
  • Low wages and minimal benefits caused by fixed Medicaid rates are significant reasons for this turnover, although there are many other contributing factors

Lacking a stable workforce not only harms individuals with disabilities and their families, but also can lead to increased institutionalization and high costs to states and federal government.  Support from Direct Support Professionals helps people with disabilities live independently or with their families or peers rather than in costlier state-run institutions.

Join in the advocacy efforts by reaching out to your members of Congress!

For more information about ANCOR, click here.

Developmental Disability Awareness Month

This March marks the 28th anniversary of Developmental Disability Awareness Month.  The National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities defines the goal of this annual campaign as “creating awareness about developmental disabilities, teaching the importance of inclusion within every aspect of life, and to sharing the stories of individuals with a disability to show that a successful life is possible”.   The campaign focuses on education, employment, and community living for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

In honor of Developmental Disability Awareness Month, we are sharing stories of inclusion all around us.  Here are some great examples of how our society is creating a more inclusive environment and bringing awareness to individuals with disabilities in our communities.

  1. Disabilities in television and film – popular television shows such as have featured people with disabilities increasingly in the past several years. Lauren Potter had a major role in Glee, Luke Zimmerman was cast in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Jamie Brewer starred in two seasons of American Horror Story, and J. Mitte portrayed Walter White’s son in the wildly popular series Breaking Bad.  Several new shows have been addressing disability issues and putting disabled characters at the center of the story, such as ABC’s Speechless, which features a high school student with cerebral palsy and Netflix’s Atypical, which tells the coming-of-age story about an 18-year-old with autism.  For more information about this topic, check out the article TV Depictions of Disability Have Come a Long Way on Buzzfeed.
  2. Apple is introducing inclusive emojis! The technology company has been praised for inclusion when it comes to skin tone and sexual orientation – now the folks at Apple have submitted a proposal for new accessibility emoji that will include service dogs, people using both manual and mechanical wheelchairs, people using canes, an ear with a hearing aid, and prosthetics.
  3. Adaptive clothing is catching on – popular and affordable brands like Cat & Jack for Target have introduced sensory-friendly clothing for kids, and are adding to their line by creating clothes for kids with other disabilities as a part of their Design for All initiative. These pieces are designed with many different disabilities in mind – including wheelchairs, sensory concerns, and abdominal access for feeding tubes.  Their sensory-friendly clothes are designed without itchy tags or seams and are constructed in soft cotton.  Other online shops are also popping up, such as Smart Knit Kids, which offers seamless socks, underwear, and tees for kids with sensory processing disorders.
  4. Opportunities for postsecondary education – colleges and universities all over the country are offering programs and courses with intellectually disabled students in mind. The REACH Program at the University of Iowa welcomes students with learning disabilities, autism and other intellectual disabilities.  This program offers a real college experience, with integrated housing, inclusive educational opportunities, employment training, and more.  Landmark College in Vermont was created especially for students with dyslexia, hyperactivity, and other learning disabilities
  5. Adaptive fitness opportunities are becoming more widely available – adaptive gyms are popping up all over! Unified Health and Performance in Lancaster is offering an inclusive environment for fitness.  People of all abilities are welcome at the gym and accommodations are made to create a great experience for everyone.  The gym also offers several adaptive group classes per week for both kids and adults.  For more information about their mission, check out the Worcester Business Journal feature article.  This Washington Post article also has a lot of great information about fitness for people with disabilities, and features a personal trainer who has autism.

Thank You to our Legislators

Over the past few months, Venture has been proud to welcome legislators from the communities we serve into our programs to share with them the valuable work we do and discuss some challenges and concerns the human services industry is facing, especially workforce recruitment and retention.  Both independently as an agency and as a member of the Provider’s Council, Venture is advocating for direct care workers.  We support legislation that will offer student loan repayment options and fair pay for similar work.  We will also continue to advocate for affordable healthcare and higher wages.  Our employees are the lifeline of the work we do every day, and we believe in investing in their wellbeing and professional development.  Looking out for our workforce leads to better care for the individuals we support and creates a stronger community.

We discussed these issues and more with Senator Anne Gobi (D – Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire and Middlesex) when she visited our Community Day Program in Sturbridge;  Senator Ryan Fattman (R – Worcester and Norfolk) and Representative Kevin Kuros (R – 8th Worcester) who both visited our Community Day Program in Uxbridge; Representative Natalie Higgins (D – 4th Worcester)  and Senator Dean Tran (R – Worcester and Middlesex) when they visited our Community Day Program in Leominster; and Representative Jeffrey Roy (D – 10th Norfolk) when he met with us at our new residential program in Franklin.  We would like to thank each of them for taking the time to hear our concerns and learn more about the vital work we do providing services to people in our community and providing jobs all over Massachusetts.

The Providers Council will be launching its new “Will You Care?” campaign at the 2018 Caring Force State House Rally on April 10th.  For more information, visit The Caring Force.

Sensory-Friendly Spring Fling

Following the success of our Sensory-Friendly Halloween Party in October, we have decided to host another free community event for families of children with autism in the Blackstone Valley area.

We will be hosting our first Sensory-Friendly Spring Fling on Thursday, April 19th from 4:00 pm until 7:00 pm at our Community Day Program and 670 Douglas Street in Uxbridge.  Join us for fun spring-themed sensory activities, gardening projects, adaptive yoga designed especially for kids, musical entertainment featuring drum circles, and more!

Entertainment and drum circles will be provided by Mike Leo Drum Circles and Rhythm-Based Entertainment.  Mike is a great performer with many years of experience working with individuals with disabilities.  He gets everyone involved in making music however they feel comfortable!  He has tons of different percussion instruments available for kids to experiment with.

Adaptive yoga sessions will be held at 4:30, 5:00, and 5:30 with Lisa Irvine, an occupational therapist and certified yoga instructor.  Lisa is also certified through our partnership with Shri Yoga, which provides training to lead evidence-based adaptive classes for many different populations, including children, individuals with developmental disabilities, and individuals with autism and other sensory disorders.

Other activities will be facilitated by Venture’s own experienced clinicians and trained staff members, such as sensory exploration, gardening projects, crafts, and make-your-own snacks.  Kids will also have access to our two state-of-the-art sensory rooms for quiet space if needed.

We hope you’ll be able to join us!  Click here for more information about our Sensory-Friendly Spring Fling.  Please RSVP to Paige Mador at 774-922-1135 or pmador@venturecs.org with the number of children and adults attending.

Autism Service Family Forum

Venture Community Services is hosting their first autism services parent and family forum at our Uxbridge Day Program (670 Douglas Street, Uxbridge) on Thursday, February 22nd at 5:30 pm.  We are interested in your input and suggestions!

Venture is looking to determine the needs of the children with autism and their families in the Blackstone Valley region in the areas of clinical support, social and recreational opportunities, life skills development, and vocational options.  We believe that families are our best indication of how we can help – and we would really like to hear from you.  We will be joined by Mike Hyland, President and CEO; Kevin Hughes, Vice President of Day Services and BCBA/LABA; and Kyle Murray, Vice President of Quality Assurance and Clinical Services.

Please RSVP to Paige at pmador@venturecs.org or 774-922-1135 to indicate that you will be attending.  We are also able to provide supervision for your child by a trained staff member while you participate in the meeting, so please include that in your email if you are interested.

We look forward to hearing about how we can help serve your community.

A New Year Has Arrived

By Mike Hyland, President and CEO

Another year has passed and a new one is now beginning.  This annual event always provides us with two opportunities: to look back or to look ahead.  Looking back can be exhausting, so let’s spend a couple of minutes looking ahead.  Each new year begins only once and this is the time to wonder what 2018 can be.  I believe it can be a year of hope.

Let’s hope this will be the year when the incredibly dedicated direct-care staff who choose to work with people with developmental disabilities and other needs are recognized as the talented professionals they are.  That everyone finally realizes the value these amazing people bring to our society every day and the critical importance of their profession.  Without them, people with disabilities would still be living in facilities that remove them from the community rather than in nice homes that allow them to be a vibrant part of it.  Worse yet, many people who need help simply would not have it.  The men and women who encompass the human services profession deserve to be paid an appropriate wage commensurate with the challenging and meaningful work they do every day.

Let’s hope 2018 will be the year when people with disabilities are no longer stigmatized.  That it will be a year where everyone with a disability is treated with respect and dignity at school, at work, and in the neighborhood.  This can be the year we all acknowledge that people with disabilities are still abused at a much higher rate than those without disabilities.  They are bullied and dismissed and taken advantage of at an alarming rate and every leader needs to stand up and say that this is a national problem that needs immediate attention.  Now is a time to hope that failures to adequately address the issue in previous years can be erased by sweeping action.

Let’s hope this is the year that our society sees a seismic turn back toward civility.  That we can look back in 2019 and say that the old year was when people remembered what it is like to work together on behalf of others, to create resources that allow everyone to thrive, and to finally ensure that those who need help are never left behind again.  2018 can be a time when the nation returns to acceptance in place of derision and where discussion replaces argument.  For too long now we have allowed leaders and people in power to treat those who disagree with them as enemies rather than as people with a different point of view.  Those who need help are usually caught in the middle of this divide and we should all hope that the people who have put them there realize they’re part of the problem.

Finally, let’s hope that the New Year will be one where everyone can agree that those who need help should get it and that a society is strengthened when it takes care of them.  People don’t ask to be born with a disability or to be homeless or to hear voices.  Creating programs that help these people to achieve maximum independence is not merely compassionate, it is cost-effective.  There is no shame in needing help to move forward, or at least there shouldn’t be.  Let’s hope we can look back on 2018 someday and point to it as the year when we all agreed that people who needed assistance were able to find it and those who provided it were finally identified as the gifted professionals they have always been.

Joy of the Season

We would like to extend a great big “thank you” to everyone in the community as well as our many dedicated employees who donated gifts and funds to support Venture’s Annual Giving Tree Program.  Thanks to the generosity of community members like you, we were able to provide individualized holiday gifts to 205 individuals!

This time of year, we are especially grateful for our supporters who are committed to helping us improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.  The gifts you donated were specifically requested items for individuals in our residential programs, and you can be certain that you brightened the holiday for each and every one of them.

Many of our administrative staff members enjoyed turning our training room into Santa’s Workshop for the day, where we wrapped and sorted all the gifts.  Our program directors will also be playing Santa this week when they make their deliveries to our programs throughout the state.

Thank you again for your support, and happy holidays from Venture Community Services!

Giving Tree on #GivingTuesday

We are excited to be hosting our Fourth Annual Giving Tree to provide gifts to the people we support.  Everyone deserves to have something special under the tree that was selected just for them.  We hope you will join us as we get into the holiday spirit this #GivingTuesday by purchasing a gift from our Amazon Wish List or making a donation to the Giving Tree Program here.

Here’s how you can help make the holidays brighter for the people we support:

  • Visit the Venture Amazon Wish List
  • Browse the list and select the item(s) you’d like to purchase
  • Check out as normal and select “Paige Mador, Director of Development Gift Registry Address” for the shipping address and the item(s) will be delivered directly to Venture’s Administrative Office. You’ll have the option to sign your name or the gift can remain anonymous.
  • If you don’t want to shop online, you can still purchase a gift – just email Paige Mador to let us know what you bought.
  • We will wrap your gift and have it delivered directly to the recipient to open and enjoy just in time for the holiday.
  • Please purchase items to arrive no later than Friday, December 15th so we have time to wrap and deliver.
  • No time to shop? Just click here to make a donation.

If you have any questions, please contact Paige Mador.  Thank you for your generosity during the holiday season and your support of Venture Community Services all year round!

Let’s Make Sure We Keep the Promise

By Mike Hyland, President and CEO

The end of the year tends to be a busy time.  The holidays are upon us, there are seemingly endless tasks and errands, high school seniors are planning the next steps in their lives, and Old Man Winter makes his annual return.  This is also the time of year when Congress tries to wrap up business.  In 2017, that means tax reform, which we all know is an unfailingly complicated business.  In addition, this year Congress will also take up the chore of confirming (or not) a new Secretary of Health and Human Services.  With all due respect to the enormity of the work happening in Washington D.C., we should be careful to ensure we don’t leave people who need help, and those who provide that help, behind.  In other words, let’s make sure we keep the promise.

It is most important that we remember that massive change has the potential to inflict unintended consequences on various groups.  As such, our Congress has a responsibility to be sure that any legislation or action does not inadvertently harm people with disabilities or the professionals who work tirelessly to help them.  The cost of providing quality services to people is not cheap, and it’s not supposed to be.  An automobile with front and side airbags costs more than one with pillows stapled to the steering wheel because it’s safer for people, and that’s what provider agencies do: we keep people safe.  Providing supports that allow people to live vibrant lives with dignity and choice is the minimum of what we should require as a society.  And this is not just a responsibility at the national level either.  Individual states must also ensure that we don’t lose the gains we’ve made over the years.

Massachusetts is one of a number of states now moving under the auspices of managed care entities the fiscal oversight responsibilities for many of the services provided to people with disabilities   The goal of reducing redundancy through better coordination of care is appropriate and even admirable.  That goal, however, is dwarfed by the responsibility to make sure that no one who currently receives community supports is forced to make do with less. We must take great care to guard against the pitfalls experienced in states such as Texas, where many severely disabled children have seen a horrifying reduction in vital services, or Kansas, where some families have been asked to sign blank treatment plans that ultimately called for drastic cuts to supports that keep loved ones in the community.  Massachusetts has always been a compassionate leader in the provision of social services and that commitment must remain absolute in the face of any systemic changes that may take place

As politicians struggle with the need and pressure to reduce runaway costs in certain areas, they owe it to everyone who receives community based-supports to remember just what people with disabilities (and their families) were told to expect when such supports were moved out of institutions and into local communities.  They were promised that people would be safe.  That is a promise that needs to be kept.  It’s everyone’s responsibility to see that it is.


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