County Comment/Conference Provides State Disability Information

by Norman Bassett
Washington County Office on Disability Issues

About seventy-five people from Washington, Frederick, Garrett, Allegany and Carroll Counties attended a mini-conference December 8th at Robinwood Medical Center to hear the Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office for Individuals with Disabilities outline changes for improvements to services for people with disabilities in Maryland.

The Washington County Disability Advisory Committee, the Western Maryland Region Office of the Developmental Disabilities Administration, the Western Maryland Consortium, Washington County Health System, Inc., Resource Development and Horizon Goodwill brought Diane McComb to Hagerstown to present highlights of Governor Robert Ehrlich’s proposal to create a cabinet-level office dealing with disability issues. Tentatively named the Department of Disability Policy and Supports, the office would strive to “empower people with disabilities in Maryland in the communities where they live to achieve their personal and professional goals.”

McComb outlined five goals for the proposed department. Included would be increasing capacity of Maryland Communities to provide services in inclusive settings. Creation of a citizen-centered system of supports in which consumers exercise meaningful choice and maintain control over their lives is the second goal. Third is infusion of the service delivery system with elevated expectations of the capacities of people with disabilities. The fourth goal is to incorporate the principles of universal design and accessibility into Maryland’s communities and technology. The final goal would construct a seamless, responsive and coordinated service delivery system.

McComb praised Ehrlich’s commitment to improving quality of life for people with disabilities in Maryland. Cornerstone principles of the new Department will direct the work of state agencies with the expectation that people will be able to live more meaningful lives as a result.

McComb said that the guiding principles will push for more independence and productivity and provide community supports, training and opportunities to those who have disabilities. Those supports and services are best delivered in home communities, McComb said. The need for individually tailored support programs, with design and direction coming from the person with a disability will be fully embraced by the new department.

McComb assured those gathered at the meeting that the new Department would not take the place of those agencies, which are currently providing services to people with disabilities.

Peggy Martin, Chair of the Disability Advisory Committee for Washington County, introduced McComb, and also Pete Thomas, who is Director of the Western Maryland Consortium. That agency is taking the lead in assisting people with disabilities into the workforce in Washington, Allegany and Garrett Counties. Statewide, a number of “Disability Navigators” have been hired to interact with employers and workers who have disabilities.

Furthering this commitment, on December 15th, Governor Ehrlich and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Chair Cari M. Dominguez signed a landmark resolution aimed at enhancing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities nationwide in state government. EEOC is pioneering a series of federal-state government partnerships to further advance President Bush’s New Freedom Initiative designed to fully integrate the nation’s 54 million individuals with disabilities into all aspects of American life. EEOC’s role will include consultation, outreach, and technical assistance. Currently, people with disabilities represent 17 percent of Maryland’s working-age population.