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Our Voices Together kick off campaign

July 12, 2018
Pine Island Eagle

Over the years, funding for programs to assist those with developmental and intellectual disabilities has dried up, and those affected haven't really had a voice.

On Monday, July 9, at the Fort Myers Talking Books Library, a local coalition, Our Voices Together, Florida, gathered for the first time to give those individuals that voice. A standing room only crowd of advocates, parents and clients gathered to kick off a campaign they hope will lead to more opportunities.

The gathering was the first step in an effort to empower those with intellectual and developmental disabilities statewide with the information and resources necessary to meet the crisis head-on and speak up.

"The system is fragmented and inadequate. The only way this will change is to get voices at the table that matter the most, those impacted by it," said Kevin Lewis, executive director at LARC, an organization that since 1954 has helped those with disabilities. "We hope to get folks engaged and their voices. There, we can identify priorities."

Todd Ryan, of the Community Resource Network of Florida, said there was a movement in the 1980s to move those with disabilities out of institutions and into community-based services.

The problem was they had a budget for a limited number of people. When many more people came to rely on these services, there was no new money for them. And the state was no help, organizers said.

In 2003, they reduced the provider reimbursement rate by $45 million; the following year they introduced a matrix that reduced service hours for individuals. They got a bump in 2006, but the following year another $35 million was taken away and a tier system was implemented, followed by another $43 million cut the following year before the market crash put the state in survival mode.

While the state eventually increased funding, it is still not enough to keep up with costs. Reimbursement rates for providers are no longer offsetting the cost of care, making it difficult for organizations to retain qualified caregivers, Ryan said.

"Writing letters isn't going to help. Using our collective voice and addressing our legislators is where the real change happens," Ryan said. "If nobody tells them there's a problem, they're going to appropriate somewhere else."

There were many guest speakers, including one who has a disability, and representatives from several agencies along with political and community leaders who came up with a mission statement during the coalition's initial organizing session.

"It's time to put our voices together. Enough is enough. We need to stop watching programs and services get cut and start fighting for your past, present and future," said Beth Gulling, a member of the panel who was the most passionate speaker. "It's going to take an army of people and voices."

Advocates and parents believed Monday was a great first step in getting those in need the voice they lack.

"I am very impressed. I'm a special needs parent and I've seen a small increase in resources, so it gives me hope for the younger generation so they don't have to go through the things my child had to," said Heather Stone of Cape Coral, a mother who advocated for a summer camp for Special Pops that the city will fund.

Cole Caruso, CEO of the Community Resource Network of Florida, said it is time to create real change for adults and children in Florida who have developmental and intellectual disabilities.

"We're here to raise other people's voices and create a platform for them," Caruso said. "It was a great turnout and it was a collective effort and people said what they wanted to say. I have great hopes that this group will create great change in Florida."

The next meeting will be Aug. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Fort Myers Public Library.



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