PHOTO CAPTION: Front – Matt Jennings; Back (l to r) – Nancy Murray, president of The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh; Sherri Landis, executive director of The Arc of PA; Governor Josh Shapiro; Cindy Smith Jennings, Matt’s parent; Judy Smith, Matt’s grandparent; Ruth Siegfried, founder and president of InVision Human Services.
Op-Ed By: By Matt Jennings
Some battles stretch on for decades in the realm of public advocacy. For people with intellectual disabilities and autism (ID/A) and for their families, this has been a harsh reality as they struggle navigating bureaucracy and underfunding.
However, a recent announcement by Governor Josh Shapiro has sparked a glimmer of hope. He recently acknowledged that the direct support professional (DSP) workforce shortage and the state’s waiting list for critical community supports and services are both crises and priorities in his forthcoming budget. He went on to say that he has directed the Office of Developmental Programs to do an immediate rate review and prioritize the ID/A crisis in his forthcoming budget.
PA’s chronic underfunding of ID/A programs has led to countless families being told their loved ones are eligible for essential services, only to find that providers are unable to hire enough competent DSPs willing to work for inadequate wages. Families have tirelessly lobbied legislators, sent thousands of letters, and met with elected officials in a desperate plea for help. Yet, the state budget has continually fallen short of addressing this crisis with the urgency it deserves.
Gov. Shapiro’s commitment is a watershed moment. For the first time in recent memory, the leader of the Commonwealth has stepped forward to confront this crisis head-on. Even more remarkable, he is taking on this issue even as it has been acknowledged as a national crisis. This means he is putting PA in the national spotlight as he works toward a solution.
What sets Gov. Shapiro apart is not just his acknowledgment of the problem, but his determination to resolve it. Last week, in a recent address to the National Association of Direct Support Professionals in Pittsburgh, he acknowledged the desperation, exhaustion, and need experienced by individuals with ID/A and their families.
The Governor’s decision to address this crisis comes after a meeting with disability advocates and family members who shared their struggles and challenges. He witnessed the unending exhaustion of these families and their frustrations of navigating an underfunded and overburdened system.
Both Republicans and Democrats have stepped forward to support this cause. Gov. Shapiro and the General Assembly seem to have gained a deeper understanding of the challenges and desperation experienced by the thousands of families that have reached out to their individual legislators. Our expectation now is that they will collaborate on a comprehensive plan to address the ID/A crisis.
Gov. Shapiro’s commitment to supporting this vulnerable community is nothing short of historic. Even with bipartisan support for the ID/A cause, the Governor’s leadership makes the significant difference.
Hope is a precious commodity in the lives of those affected by ID/A, and this community has had more than its fair share of setbacks. But the resilience of these families, their unwavering commitment to their loved ones, and their tireless advocacy are forces to be reckoned with. Hope fuels their determination.
This is an extraordinary step and sends a clear message that the Commonwealth is committed to supporting those who need it most. We thank Governor Shapiro for his leadership.
By Matt Jennings, member of the ID/A community; Cindy Jennings and Judy Smith, Matt’s parent and grandparent; Nancy Murray, president of The Arc of Pittsburgh; and Ruth Siegfried, founder and president of InVision Human Services.