Assistive Technology and Me

The following article was written by Andrew with help from the manager of his program.  Andrew lives in a Venture residence in Worcester County and wanted to share his experience with using assistive technology.

Every day, I rely on assistive technology.  I use an overhead barrier-free lift system to get out of bed in the morning.  I then use my customized wheelchair to successfully complete my morning routines before leaving for work.  To get to work, I ride in a customized van.  The van lifts me off the ground and into the van with staff assistance.   When I was younger, all of these things – getting out of bed, getting into my wheelchair, and getting into any mode of transportation – were done by people lifting me.  When people lift you, it can be really scary and sometimes I was injured.  I have not gotten injured since I started using mechanical lifts and I feel much more comfortable.

In April 2017, I wanted to begin doing some races, but wasn’t sure I would be able to.  However, I did not realize that specialized running wheelchairs are available.  The first time I saw the running chair, I was a bit nervous.  I thought, “It doesn’t look like any other chair I have ever used.”  It only has three wheels – two in the back and one in the front.

I was very lucky to meet the team of individuals who designed and built these running chairs, and they explained aerodynamics to me.  Until that moment, I had never realized the importance of science in assistive technology.

When I participate in races with the assistance of Team Hoyt New England runners, I am sitting in an aerodynamically correct position for both my physical needs and for the person who is pushing me – amazing!  Later this summer, I will be learning to sail on a sailboat that has been fitted with assistive lifts to get in and out of the boat, and a rudder that has been adapted for me to use.  I can’t wait… And I am no longer scared of trying any new assistive technology!

Assistive Technology Partnership

Assistive Technology can best be described as a variety of items which can help an individual work around functional limitations imposed by a disability.  Some of these items include wheelchairs with adaptive trays to hold a person’s iPad, a brace for a person to be able to hold an eating utensil, a built-up handle of a spoon, or a communication device.  These items are essential to improving the quality of life and level of independence for people with disabilities.  Other examples of such equipment might be lifts, swings, tricycles, tablets, computer software, shower chairs, specialty writing utensils and so much more. These items can help individuals with mobility, communication, sensory, recreational, or social needs.

With the increasing specialized needs of the individuals we support, Venture has developed an Assistive Technology Committee to help effectively meet these needs.  Key employees have been attending conferences and trainings to learn how to develop a program that will help assist individuals access the resources available.  Currently, the committee is in the process of conducting assessments to determine what equipment would be most helpful to the individuals in our programs.

In keeping with our mission to enrich the lives of those we serve, we are very proud to announce our partnership with Tantasqua Regional Vocational High School in their commitment to assist people in their community by creating individualized and innovative assistive technology.  This fall, we will be working with Ray Rousseau from the Manufacturing Department and Bruce Tranter from the Computer Technology Department to assist us in developing creative approaches.  We are looking forward to teaming up to expand our services and we are thankful to the many students who will be dedicated to helping with these projects.  Stay tuned for updates!

Sensory-Friendly Summer Activities

This summer, there are many sensory-friendly summer activities for individuals with autism and sensory processing disorders available throughout the community.  Thankfully, many organizations and community groups have developed a greater awareness about the needs of this population, providing families of children with disabilities the same opportunities as everyone else.  We applaud the efforts of local vendors and organizations that are working to meet the needs of everyone, regardless of disability.

Here is a list of events and activities throughout Massachusetts that are sensory-friendly fun for the whole family:

Sensory Sensitive Saturday in Boston on July 22 – tours and programs at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute

Sensory-Friendly Movie on July 29 – showing of “The Emoji” in Haverhill

Family Autism Event on August 5 – The Children’s Museum in Easton

“A Little Princess” Sensory Friendly Performance on July 22 – community theater program in Brockton

Especially for Me: Autism-Friendly Evening on August 19 – Children’s Discovery Museum in Acton

Sensory Sensitive SundaysChuck E. Cheese’s in Worcester and other Massachusetts locations

Sensory Friendly Saturdays – Altitude Trampoline Park in Billerica

First Inclusive Water Park

Morgan’s Wonderland, the country’s most accessible theme park, has opened the world’s first inclusive water park.  Morgan’s Inspiration Island offers the excitement and fun of a water park to children and adults of all abilities, and offers complimentary waterproof wheelchairs (including air-powered power wheelchairs), warm-water splash pad, beautiful interactive water playgrounds, cabanas for relaxing, and a river boat ride.  Spacious accessible changing rooms, reasonable ticket prices, sensory-friendly environments, and handicapped-accessible everything make this water park an incredible experience for everyone – especially those who haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy an amusement park due to physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, ambulation difficulties, or medical conditions.  Admission for those with disabilities is free of charge.  This park has truly thought of everything!

The park’s creator, Gordon Hartman, is a philanthropist who created the amusement park and water park after being inspired by his daughter Morgan, who has developmental disabilities.  In addition to funding the parks, the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation offers grants to organizations that help people with special needs.  Let’s hope that others around the country take the lead of Morgan’s Wonderland and make recreational opportunities available for everyone!

For more information, check out their video.

Is this the Final Assault on Medicaid?

By Mike Hyland, President and CEO

With the year half over already, the U.S. Senate is working furiously to pass a bill that overhauls the Affordable Care Act before Congress recesses for the July 4th holiday.  A bill written in complete secrecy by just 13 members of the 100-member Senate is finally making its way to all of the people who will ultimately vote on it next week and, like the bill passed by the House of Representatives last month, the details are alarming.

Of paramount concern is the Senate’s plan to mirror the bill passed by the House that significantly cut Medicaid over a ten-year period, while also converting it to a block grant.  It is not just an assault on Medicaid, but an unequivocal betrayal of people with developmental disabilities and the hard-working men and women who support them in the community.  With Governor Baker already asserting that this legislation will cost Massachusetts billions if enacted, the Commonwealth will find itself in a position where draconian cuts to basic supports will be inevitable.  The human service industry already struggles to hire people, and will now be gutted even further.  The funds available to increase wages will disappear.  There have been months of advocacy that have taken place to educate the White House and Congress about what these cuts will do to people with disabilities, as well as the professionals dedicated to helping them.  Both the proposed Senate and House bills represent that the people who wrote them and voted for them just don’t care.  They know that services for people with disabilities will be cut and that pay for direct care professionals will freeze. Their actions prove they truly don’t give a damn.  How did we allow our society to get here?  If there is one thing that elected officials should be able to agree upon, it is the duty to protect people with disabilities and the too-long-taken-for-granted workforce that helps them.  Instead, President Trump and leadership in the House and Senate have chosen to abandon them and dedicate dollars that currently support these groups to the most affluent in our country via a tax cut.  Perhaps worst of all, these actions come following a promise from candidates that, if elected, they would protect Medicaid and the disabled.  Obviously, it was a lie from the start.

There is still a process that these bills must go through before becoming law.  Essentially, the House and the Senate must find a way to reconcile the two bills into one and send it to the White House to be signed.  It is my hope that people will flood lawmakers like never before with phone calls and emails that decry this horrific dismissal of people in need.  We should inundate our lawmakers with the notion that people with disabilities have the right to live safely in local communities.  We must also remember the professionals who are dedicated to supporting them.  So many people have worked way too hard, for far too long, under grueling circumstances to be so blithely abandoned in favor of millionaires and stubborn ideology.  Gandhi once said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”.  If one believes this, it would seem that we are dangerously close to failing the test.

Forum with Congressman Joe Kennedy

On Monday, Venture representatives attended a Disability and Health Care Forum with Congressman Joe Kennedy hosted by the Association of Developmental Disability Providers at the Boston Marriott in Newton.  The event was attended by staff members and leadership from human service agencies, self-advocates, and family members of people with disabilities.  Kennedy shared his commitment to “recognizing the potential in every person”, regardless of their physical or intellectual disability.

Congressman Kennedy expressed his concern about the American Health Care Act and how it will affect the rights of people with intellectual disabilities, with $1.4 trillion in cuts to health care.  He shared his concerns regarding threats to social security, affordable housing, food stamps, and even Special Olympics.  He pledged his commitment to the disability community, saying that we cannot support “cuts to services that we will all likely use someday, or be used by someone we love”.  In addition to thanking attendees for their activism, he encouraged the group to continue advocating and raising their voices.  He asked advocates to contact friends and family in other states and encourage them to find one more Republican Senator to oppose the AHCA.

Recently, Congressman Kennedy addressed Congress, rebuking The American Health Care Act.  Watch the video here.

Congressman Joseph Kennedy III represents the 4th District of Massachusetts and is a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.  For more information, visit his web site.

Why Medicaid Has to Survive

By Mike Hyland, President and CEO

The inexplicable assault on Medicaid continues in the Trump administration and there is good reason for people to worry about it.  The President’s stated plan to gut Medicaid by almost a trillion dollars over a ten year period, while cutting taxes for millionaires, will eviscerate crucial programs that allow people with developmental disabilities to live safe and meaningful lives in community-based settings.  We should all wonder aloud why this population of marginalized people should be so brazenly abandoned.  After we wonder about it, we should be appalled.  We should also be gravely concerned for another forgotten group: the dedicated workforce of professionals who support these people in the community.

For too long already, we have allowed people who do the very difficult work of direct care to be almost entirely neglected by national policy makers.  Advocacy to guarantee legitimately livable wages and increases, affordable health care, access to higher education and professional development too often fall on deaf ears in Washington D.C.  Publicly, officials praise the incredible work being done by so many committed professionals.  Privately, they do little to support this workforce.  Now, astonishingly, the Trump administration is dismissing these professionals and the value of their skills by proposing a budget that will make it virtually impossible for them to get paid appropriately for the vital work they do every day.

According to the Baker administration, a cut of this magnitude would cost Massachusetts approximately $1.5 billion in the first year alone.  Obviously, this kind of cut cannot be absorbed under current revenue collections, meaning that the state will have to significantly cut programs for developmentally disabled people or significantly raise taxes or, more likely, do both.  The needs of an already underpaid workforce will certainly not be prioritized in state contracts under such conditions because the money won’t be there.  We already have a genuine workforce crisis in the field of human services in this country.  By obliterating the funding mechanism that pays direct care professionals, the Trump White House is saying loud and clear that the new administration values the wealthy above the disabled and those who do so much to help them.  How sad that after so many years of advances in overcoming disabilities, stigma, bullying, isolation, and discrimination, the disability community now faces its greatest threat from people elected to help them.  How sad that the dedicated people who work tirelessly to this day to make these advances possible stand to be abandoned by those who once promised unequivocally not to cut Medicaid.

It is totally irrelevant where the plans to cut Medicaid by such a staggering amount originate.  The position, the political party, the individual, or the special interest group that encourages such devastation doesn’t matter.  Anyone who plans to do harm to so many must always be challenged and educated to understand what Medicaid truly does.  Such massive cuts as currently planned dangerously expose people who need help through no fault of their own.  Just as troubling, they signal a total dismissal of the very real needs of the many professionals who already sacrifice so much to help others.  These amazing men and women deserve much, much better than that.

Announcing ADDP Awards for Venture Employees

Venture Community Services is proud to announce that two dedicated employees received awards at this year’s ADDP Conference and Expo on May 4 at the DCU Center in Worcester. Annmarie Addesa has won the Direct Support Professional Award for the Central region and Lindsey Dezotell was presented with the Continuing Education Scholarship Award.

Annmarie offers dignity and respect to the individuals she supports in her professional role at Venture Community Services. She follows procedures and policies while still paying close attention to the safety, health and happiness of the individuals she supports.  She works with the community to create new opportunities and groups for individuals both in her house and throughout the agency.  Her Splash Day at the Attleboro Art Museum allowed individuals from several Venture homes to gather and create expressive art. She is a standout during these events, making sure everyone is involved and enjoying their time with others.  Annmarie is always supportive of individuals served while ensuring that they are also able to be as independent as possible. “Annmarie is an example of everything this field needs in the means of direct care staff,” said Rahjene Berrio, House Manager at Venture Community Services. “She is caring, creative and supportive of all individuals she supports and proves time and time again her commitment to providing them with the opportunity to live the most fulfilling life possible.”

Lindsey has advanced from Residential Counselor to her current position as Staff Trainer, where she guides new staff and continues to encourage them in their new roles. Lindsey also is a full-time student at Bay Path University, where she pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership. She is passionate about investing in families and working with people with disabilities. “In her entry role, as a 19-year-old, Lindsey quickly demonstrated a hunger to gain more knowledge about bettering the lives of the people around her,” said Walter J. Davenport, Training Coordinator at Venture Community Services. “Because of her willingness to share her own learning disability, Lindsey was able to support me in creating a work environment that allowed team members to become more sensitive to fellow co-workers with disabilities, as well as the disabilities of the people we were supporting”.

The Framingham-based Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers is committed to ensuring, strengthening and promoting the viability of community-based organizations that support people with developmental disabilities and their families.

Don’t Betray Innocent People

By Mike Hyland, President and CEO

Once again there is a bill in Washington that would replace the Affordable Care Act with another version of health care policies, regulations, and practices.  Obviously, this is a heated political issue and will likely remain so for many years – but the politics of it tend to obscure an important fact: the current bill, like the last failed bill, will unequivocally harm people with disabilities and the professionals who support them.  In other words, it betrays innocent people.

The proposed bill will punch holes in Medicaid funding that individual states will not be able to fill.  With cuts of almost $850 billion over the next ten years, people with disabilities and their advocates once again find themselves (for the second time in a year that is barely four months old) in danger of being left behind.  In fact, given that this is the second bill in 2017 that threatens them, it would appear that a good many people in Congress are also choosing to simply say that these people just don’t matter.  How in the world can that be okay in this country?

Medicaid is a $600 billion annual program that contains many provisions and it is probably time for the program to be evaluated in terms of efficiency and outcomes.  Nonetheless, converting it to a block grant or per capita program goes well beyond that.  It destroys safety nets and opportunities for people with disabilities and turns a blind eye to the work force that has battled for years to be recognized with appropriate pay and benefits for the valuable work they do and have always done.  Drastic reductions to Medicaid funding undeniably makes it even harder to support professionals who are already stretched too thin.  Clearly, these proposed Medicaid cuts are tantamount to Congress and the new administration telling this workforce that what they do isn’t important.  At best, the people proposing this latest bill just don’t understand what this industry does.  At worst, they just don’t care.

People with developmental disabilities rely on current levels of funding to stay safe, to remain in a community of choice, to get to work programs, and to access wellness and recreation.  It’s utterly baffling that this would be a group that politicians seem to have deemed as needing less than they get now.  We’ll ignore the reality that savings realized from service cuts to disabled people are intended to fund a tax cut for people making a million dollars a year and up.  That’s an issue to be taken up elsewhere.  What needs to be talked about is the reality that the current legislation, as written, will take away from people who essentially have the least.  People with developmental disabilities already struggle to work, to get adequate health care, to have reliable transportation, to develop social networks, and to be heard.  They also are victims of abuse and neglect at a higher rate than the general population.  So why does Washington believe that reducing programs that support them is a good idea?  No one seems willing to answer that question, particularly those who when campaigning pledged not to cut Medicaid.  The hypocrisy is staggering!

The ACA is obviously a hot button issue that will remain so for a long time to come.  It’s expensive and it is the duty of elected officials to examine it and anything else that divides so many people.  But don’t do something that harms people who are ignored far too often.  Don’t turn back the clock and wipe out years of progress on so many fronts for people with developmental disabilities.  Hey Washington – don’t betray innocent people.

Let’s Remember Those Who Need Help

by Mike Hyland, Venture President & CEO

It’s far too easy to get caught up in and distracted by rhetoric, particularly in a time when people are conditioned to get their information from agenda driven headlines and 140 characters of social media.  Those dynamics make it all the more important that we all make a commitment to doing something that used to be simple: let’s remember those who need help.

The pending changes to Medicaid are intended to redirect federal funds (not reduce them) and the collateral damage of this initiative will ultimately be a reduction in services and accessibility for the people that Venture and other committed agencies have supported for so long.  For some people who are thriving as vibrant members of local communities, the new Medicaid system will leave them without the support they rely on now to be as successful as they are.  For others, a reduction in dollars dedicated to community programs will prevent them from achieving appropriate levels of independence.  While Medicaid is a tremendous expense on both the federal and state levels, trying to contain costs by putting at-risk populations at even more risk is simply irresponsible.  Furthermore, trying to save Medicaid dollars by weakening safety nets for people who are already routinely marginalized, and often can’t advocate for themselves, is abhorrent.

We must also remember that this is not actually a political issue; it’s a human issue.  We’re not talking about immigration or manipulation or Medicaid fraud.  We’re talking about people who rely upon community supports from under-paid professionals to remain out of more expensive settings.  If Medicaid becomes a block grant program rather than its current program of matching federal dollars, people who have never abused the benefits of the program will be forced to make do with less.  Even the Chief Medical officer at the Health and Human Services department in Washington, Dr. Andrey Ostrovsky, is opposed to the idea of converting Medicaid to a block grant funding model, as is now proposed in Congress.  Dr. Ostrovsky believes that the harm caused by the suggested shift in funding will be wide-spread and certainly include people with disabilities.

And what of the dedicated professionals who work so hard and so well in the industry?  They are already grossly underpaid and over-burdened as it is.  The battle to provide this critical (and economically significant) workforce with appropriate wages and health insurance is constant.  These people will undoubtedly be left behind again if there are Medicaid cuts that reduce the amount of money that currently funds community-based supports for individuals and families. At a time when recruitment of staff to work in human services is at a crisis point, the act of reallocating current funds away from the people who already make sacrifices to care for others is nothing short of disgraceful.

Cuts to Medicaid will have a long-term ripple effect too.  Progress that has been made over the years in helping people with disabilities will halt and eventually reverse, and the workforce will be further diminished because livable wages will be harder to provide than ever before.  In short, pending reductions to the dollars vital to so many people who need help amounts to one big broken promise.


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