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Thousands falling through the cracks in the DDS system

Lauren Baletsa has Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic defect that causes such a strong compulsion to overeat that she forged her father’s signature on checks to buy food.

Baletsa was one of dozens of people who testified on Tuesday before the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee in support of proposed legislation that would require the state to provide services to people with Prader-Willi and other developmental disabilities.

Many people with these disabilities have cognitive impairments and autism, leaving them unable to function normally or adequately in society.  However, many of them have IQs that are just above the cutoff  level to qualify for services from the Department of Developmental Services. 

In testimony before the Committee, Rick Glassman of the Disability Law Center maintained that Massachusetts appears to be the only state in the nation that does not grant eligibility for services unless the individual has an intellectual disability as measured by an IQ score.

Glassman said research done by the DLC indicates that every other state provides services based on at least some additional measures of disability such as substantial functional limitations or designated impairments such as autism.  “I hope I’m wrong about that and am missing something,” Glassman said.  “But if so, I can’t figure out what it is.”

Glassman and other advocates, including COFAR, noted that DDS’s restrictive eligibility standard for services has left thousands of people in the state without services of any kind.  COFAR has joined the DLC, the Arc of Massachusetts, the Aspergers Association of New England and other organizations in urging support for legislation (H.B. 78 and similar measures) that would require DDS to provide services to people with developmental disabilities and not just “intellectual disabilities.”

As Glassman and others pointed out, just because someone has an IQ higher than 70 (the DDS’s approximate cutoff level for providing services) does not mean that person is high functioning or able to complete even basic tasks such as dressing or bathing without assistance.

Awilda Torres is a case in point.  She testified Tuesday that her son Carlos, 22, who has autism, was recently riding in a van when he jumped out while the van was moving, ran to a policeman and insisted he had been kidnapped by the driver.  Carlos’s IQ, Torres said, is just above the DDS cutoff point for services.

Other parents of autistic adults testified that while services and even state-supported day and work programs were available to their children before they turned 22, those programs ceased once the children reached that age.  At the age of 22, people with intellectual disabilities in Massachusetts, who had been receiving special education services through local school districts, must enter the DDS system with its more restrictive eligibility standard.

Karen Kadzen-Pandolfi testified that her son, who is now 23, lost his services a year before because his IQ was measured at 71.  He has a problem with aggression and violent behavior.  As a result, she must now stay home from her job to care for him.   “My life is on hold,” Kadzen-Pandolfi said.  “I keep searching for an answer, but there are no answers.”

Delivering COFAR’s testimony, I noted that the public is largely unaware of the severity of these developmental disabilities and of the fact that so many people are not receiving any services to cope with them.  Tuesday’s hearing at the State House was not covered by any mainstream media outlets nor was a similar hearing last November in Worcester that had been held by DDS to consider proposed regulations regarding its IQ eligibility standard.

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