Commentary: Delaware’s approach to disability services is foolhardy

In “Delaware is failing to provide autism support,” published in this paper recently, writer Jamie Fairbanks issued a call to action that can’t be repeated enough. “Please explore Delaware’s failure to do their part to ensure adequate care and services for these kids,” she wrote. They “will become adults whether they get help or not.”

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities, just like those without, are better equipped for life when they receive quality education, health care, employment supports and other reasonable accommodations. There are straightforward policy steps Delaware can take to effect improvements in these systems. We need to demand they be adopted. Not only is it a moral imperative — it’s an economic master stroke.

Zachary Davis

Rep. Kim Williams’ H.B. 48 needs to become law. The bill fixes a mystifying oversight: our state funds every type of special education at higher rates than regular education except for K–3 “basic” special education. Fully implemented, H.B. 48 would likely cost the state $13 million more per year.

Balance that $13 million against this. There is unequivocally a straight line between early intervention and positive outcomes in the health, communication skills, cognitive development and social/emotional development of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As they become adults, they use fewer health and special education services. They are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. They have more success finding jobs.

The downstream effects of those improved health outcomes spread through many sectors of the economy. Boost one person with a disability into meaningful employment and you’ve added a new taxpayer. Boost a thousand and you just made the market more competitive, upped income, property and sales tax revenue and conjured new consumers all around the state.

It doesn’t stop there. Suddenly, the overextended state agencies overseeing education, health care, criminal justice and corrections aren’t spending as much time and money remediating system stressors like the exploding special education population and the opioid crisis. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman estimates every dollar invested in early education and intervention results in $7–$10 saved.

There aren’t many win-wins in politics. This is one.

Then there’s the Michael McNesby Act, signed into law last year. It increases the shamefully paltry amount of Medicaid money the state pays to reimburse care providers. The idea is that, if the companies are reimbursed at higher rates, they can pay their direct support professionals (DSPs) higher wages. Fully implementing the act would cost the state about $40 million.

However, the bill was changed just before the Legislature took it up last June. A late amendment added that spending would be “subject to available funding.” Translation: optional.

Raising DSP wages reduces the staff turnover and vacancy rate, which lightens each DSP’s workload. With more DSPs providing individualized care, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities need fewer state health services. Meanwhile, DSPs experience less physical and mental stress — the position has some of the highest injury and illness rates of all professions. The state spends less on health care, unemployment and disability insurance while taking in more tax revenue.

There aren’t many win-wins in politics. This is another.

To be clear, the Legislature did appropriate some funds for K–3 basic special education and DSP wages in the last session. For that, our lawmakers deserve credit. But these appropriations are conditional, subject to our elected representatives’ interpretation of “available funds.” They need to be permanent.

Let’s make Delaware an example, not only of tolerance and respect, but of the concrete, undeniable economic success that flows from inclusion. Pay care providers what they’re worth. Invest in early education, detection and prevention. The state and its people will reap the benefits.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Zachary Davis of Newark is an individual with a disability, an advocate and the founder of disabilitypolitics.org.

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