The crisis for those with disabilities

March 6, 2012

RORY FANNING'S article on the killing of Stephon Watts ("Why was Stephon Watts killed?") brings to light many of the challenges and injustices that people with disabilities endure daily.

Little is known about the number of people with autism in the prison system, but what is known is that there is little, if any, guidance or support services for those in prison. Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart recently told the Chicago News Cooperative that the system "is so screwed up that I've become the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois." He described a makeshift area of the jail which houses people with mental illness.

In addition, too few emergency responders such as police or firefighters are trained in working with people with disabilities--in addition to the long history of the brutality and racism of police in Chicago.

The situation will only get worse. Due to the "crisis" in local and state budgets, the city plans to shut down six of its 12 public mental health centers. In addition, Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing cuts of $2.7 billion to Medicaid.

Already, families in Illinois do not have the necessary services to support and care for their children or loved ones with disabilities. For example, the Prioritization of Urgency of Need for Services, known as PUNS, is a list of families in Illinois who need government assistance for in-home assistance, respite care and other services. The wait list is 21,000 families. Twenty-one-thousand families are currently not receiving the services they need--and further cuts are on the way.

I work with students with autism and other developmental disabilities. I hear about their families' struggles to care for their young children, receive therapies, get equipment and supplies, obtain appropriate support from the schools, and pay for respite care. (While they are struggling, the city of Chicago is spending millions on hosting the G8 and NATO!)

Fewer resources will only further strain an already inadequate social service system. People with autism and developmental disabilities can--and have every right to--lead happy and fulfilling lives. However, when support is not available to make that happen, families will end up in crisis situations like the Watts--turning to untrained and ill-equipped emergency responders, which will lead to police abuse, imprisonment and further crisis.
Noreen McNulty, Chicago

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