Florida’s Big Disability Services Dilemma, and a Comparison to Other Modernized Nations

It is a sad fact that many persons that have disabilities of one sort or another go without the necessary assistance every single day in many parts of the world. Here in the United States, you would expect that the Americans with Disabilities Act would require that persons with disabilities receive services that they are entitled to – but unfortunately, it does not. This is especially so in some parts of the Southeastern United States, especially in Florida. In fact, the state of Florida has consistently ranked 48th in the nation as far as service to the disabled is concerned, and state agencies in Florida are not doing the job they were set up to do as they are supposed to do – nor is the state alone in the matter. Providing services to the disabled is – and always has been – a very sensitive subject no matter where you look.

The problem is so bad that about “15,000 disabled men, women and children remain on a waiting list, sometimes for years in need of services” in Florida alone, a woeful fact acknowledged countless times by Florida’s own state officials. In fact, this means that “as much as $50 million designated for developmentally disabled Floridians [may remain] unspent” at any given time on services that could otherwise help disabled persons in Florida receive the assistance they need. (Miami Herald, 2005)

Another part of the problem is that agencies in Florida see their funding cut at inopportune times. In one case, Florida state officials cut funding following revelations of a surplus of over $60 million for assisting the disabled – money better kept in the pipeline and actually used to help disabled persons live better lives. (Orlando Sentinel, 2005) Now can you tell me why Florida state officials cut funding? Specifically speaking, state officials should be spending to assist the disabled, and unfortunately, in Florida, they are not. Evidently, the state bureaucracy is putting its needs before those who are disabled, and this is wrong.
Even more debilitating is that the state of Florida may appear to take the difference between disability and death a little too far – namely in the case of those who are literally what you would call ‘brain-dead.’ Consider the recent Terri Shiavo case, for example. On one end, we have a severely brain-injured woman who relies on a feeding tube and her ex-husband who has come to realize that she may already be brain-dead. On the other end, of course, we have the woman’s parents who believe their daughter is still alive in this regard and who insist they can care for her in her present state. We all saw what happened next – a bitter dispute broke out between the two sides for years; Florida Gov. Jeb Bush passed a law providing for the return of Shiavo’s feeding tube to its position after its removal, which the courts soon struck down; and even the Catholic Church took a side in the matter. In addition, if that is not bad enough, all of this happened under the watch of the entire nation.

That is not to say the Schiavo case controversy is the fault of anyone involved – as it is not so – however, the whole matter certainly put a human face on Florida’s disability services problem as far as I am concerned. In fact, for disabled Americans everywhere, “seeing the final images of Terri Schiavo was like looking at a terrifying picture of themselves – undervalued and at the mercy of others.” Worse still, watching the whole ordeal “looked as though Schiavo was ‘put to death for the crime of being disabled,'” according to William G. Stothers, deputy director of the Center for an Accessible Society. Stothers also notes that the ordeal makes it look like “‘it is a generally held belief that in society at large the view is better dead than disabled.'” (Washington Post, 2005)

That, unfortunately, is not fair to the disabled. Then again, neither is cutting funding for disability services for very bad political reasons. One question, though: does the problem clear up outside of the state of Florida? Not necessarily – as it turns out, there are many cases where services for the disabled get the cold-shoulder treatment – even on an international basis. For example, reports on criticism of the Learning Disability Task Force in Great Britain once surfaced citing a “lack of suitable accommodation in the community, failure of local councils to provide people with learning disabilities with the funding to buy their own community care services, and anger that strategic health authorities had spent some of the learning disability development fund.” (British Journal of Nursing, Abstract, 2003)

The U.K. may also have issues with disability services application processes, and that does not help the matter any more than funding cuts on our side of the globe. Findings obtained from the interviews of families with disabled children in the U.K. indicated, among other things, a number of discrepancies. These include procedures for receiving assistance often taking too much time and had too many complications to be effective; the existence of very tight schedules that took too much of a toll on families just for testing and therapy sessions; and a wide variety of factors generally tends to degrade the overall experience. Social organization also tends to be an issue when compared to the disabilities of individuals themselves; in other words, “the individual is being disabled, not by their impairment, but by the failure of society to take account of and organize around [the] difference” in the individual’s condition (or differences of such, depending on the case). (Disability & Society, 2001)
Preparation of personnel to handle individuals with specific disabilities is also an issue, especially in schools. Take, for example, classroom instruction for children afflicted with autism. In this case, there is often a “teacher shortageâÂ?¦ [as well as] attrition among special education teachers.” There is also an issue with “noncategorical versus categorical teacher training and the impact of each on teacher preparedness, lack of scope and depth of most autism training models,” which can lead to “clashes in theoretical orientation that may negatively affect teacher training, and [further] issues that may arise when undertrained teachers interact with parents.” (Focus on Autism, 2003)

Fortunately, there are solutions to problems with serving disabled citizens in modern society. First, make sure funding is available to provide the required services and do not skimp on the cash. Second, make sure the application procedures are easy to understand so that people can apply for needed services without too much hassle. Third, make sure there is a national standard in place – such as the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act – and stick to it. Finally, be ready to recommend – and develop – assistive technology according to an individual’s needs. For example, the Simon Technology Center in Minneapolis, MN, has a vast array of assistive technology resources – and research projects – designed to assist persons with varying disabilities live better lives. (Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 2005). This is just one example of a research lab for assisting and researching assistance techniques for the disabled – in fact, the state of Florida itself has a few bright spots for assisting disabled individuals. These include the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and a few other grassroots efforts in the disability services space, headed by and involving such high-profile individuals as former NFL quarterback Dan Marino – and all exist quite nicely despite the state’s flawed governmental logic towards the disabled.

Providing services to the disabled should not be an issue fraught with complexity, funding issues, and other problems that make it hard to help those with debilitating conditions that they could do without, but are unfortunately unable to live without facing on a daily basis. Whether these conditions are physical or mental in nature does not matter – all people need the benefits of the meaning of the self-evident truths set forth by America’s Founding Fathers, namely that “all men are created equal.” It is time to set aside political differences and complexities and actually do something about the world’s disabled population so that they, too, can live in harmony with the rest of humankind. After all, it is the only fair thing to do.

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