After Options: A requiem for hope

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Craig Harwood, guest columnist

The hard work of so many parents and concerned citizens who helped to create one of the best sheltered workshops in Iowa passed into the history books on June 30. This was the last day of operations for the sheltered workshop operated by Options of Linn County.

It was started in the 1960s to provide a better life for mentally handicapped adults to spend their days, earning a modest amount of money while being productive in a safe and communal setting with their friends. This was a monumental step forward for that era.The Options sheltered workshop now joins the ranks of the other sheltered workshops in town and in the region that have succumbed to the inexorable and mindless do-goodery of our elected officials and policy makers at the federal and state levels. Who, you may ask, has allowed this to happen? There are three groups sharing the blame:1. Our elected officials’ inability to recognize this small, and sadly, voiceless minority in our country, the intellectually/developmentally disabled (I/DD).2. Our federal policy makers who are under the firm belief that all disabled adults are equally capable of being fully integrated into a community employment setting, no matter their individual and unique mental and physical challenges.3. Finally, we the community for not raising our voices about the impact to this vulnerable population (who are our family members, our neighbors and our friends). Based on the false belief that all I/DD citizens are the same, the policy makers have repeatedly and firmly enforced two guiding principles: 1) all I/DD adults are capable of and willing to be fully integrated in their jobs, and 2) that they should be paid minimum wage for these jobs, even if they are incapable of competing at minimum wage rates for the job.The result is that if an I/DD worker either cannot handle, or does not want an integrated job setting, then they will be put into a day habilitation program. If the worker can handle the job, but cannot effectively compete for that minimum wage job with other “normal” workers, then they will also be put into a day hab program. The bottom-line is that the majority of these workers have moved into day hab programs.So, while we are setting the clocks back fifty-some years, we continue to hope that our elected officials will do something about this. We wait for the policy makers at the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to recognize the mistake in tying long-term support funding to integrated employment only, with no choice by the individual. While we wait (hope) for CMS to make these changes, we can expect to see more I/DD folks in the community as part of their day hab integration activities. They will be at the mall, the fast food place, the library, etc. They won’t be earning any wages now, and they won’t be producing anything useful and they will be less happy, but they will be integrated! So please, when you see a group of I/DD adults at the mall or retailer’s shop, say hello, smile, be welcoming and supportive; they belong to our community too!Sadly, it will also cost the taxpayers more for these I/DD folks to be in these day hab programs, as many of these programs are more costly to operate than the sheltered workshops they replaced. CMS will happily provide support funding for the day hab programs, as long as no work is performed as part of the funded activities. So, let’s all take a moment to remember the hard work that went into creating the Options sheltered workshop that was such a grand step forward, and observe a moment of silence as we witness the death of hope for a more purposeful life for this voiceless group of disabled citizens.

• Craig Harwood lives and works in Cedar Rapids with his wife and family. He believes in advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Comments: Optionsadvocate@gmail.com

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