State Agencies to Reorganize: What Effect on Disability Programs?

In an attempt to address Minnesota’s labor shortage, the State Legislature is considering several bills that would reorganize some key state agencies that are geared toward employment issues.

As we go to press, legislative proposals are under consideration that would eliminate the Department of Economic Security (DES), raising the question of what will happen to the programs serving people with disabilities which are currently housed in that agency.  Under these proposals, DES programs such as vocational rehabilitation, independent living, extended employment, and state services for the blind would end up in a new location in state government.  Exactly where that new location should be is the subject of heated discussion among advocates for people with disabilities.

On April 11th, in a special meeting of the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities (CCD), the ramifications of various proposals were raised.  The ensuing discussion revealed deep differences of opinion at both the philosophical and practical levels.

Barb Yates, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Children, Families, and Learning, made it clear to CCD members that the initiative to reorganize the agencies had come from the Governor’s office.  She reminded those present that, while any reorganization will certainly affect people with disabilities, that was not the focus of the Governor’s initiative.  “We’re looking at workforce development, and the fact that we don’t have enough workers in Minnesota,” she stated.

“Disability Ghetto” or Increased Influence?

Perhaps the deepest disagreement at the April 11th meeting   echoes of which are being heard throughout the community, including in this month’s Disability Culture column on page 5   focused on the relative merits of integration versus separation.  Would it be better to create a “super agency” which would bring all the programs and services for people with disabilities together under one roof?  Or would it be better to spread the various programs among existing agencies, including some new agencies that are under discussion by the Governor’s office and the Legislature?

On the one hand, advocates of a “super agency” point out that programs serving persons with disabilities are often overlooked when they are contained within a large agency with other programs.  They see great advantage in the higher profile, influence, and focus they believe would be gained from creating a large agency with a mandate to serve all parts of the diverse community of people with disabilities.

In addition, they point out that a multi-faceted agency would provide “one-stop shopping” for services, which would be of particular benefit to the increasing numbers of people with multiple disabilities in the state.  Some people with multiple disabilities are now forced to seek state services from several different offices or agencies, which sometimes results in inconvenience and bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Other advocates support locating programs for people with disabilities in a variety of state agencies, arguing that the services they provide should be available through the same agencies that serve non-disabled people.  They say a consolidation of services would create a “disability ghetto,” which would be subject to political attack and which would force together programs which really don’t have anything to do with each other.

Some activists point out that many in the general population still have a hard time understanding the value of programs that serve people with disabilities.  They also speak of the fact that the tax-cut fever which is gripping the nation has raised demands that funding be cut for some programs that are (wrongly) perceived as “costly special interest” budget items, such as special education.  A “super agency,” in this view, would just make disability programs a bigger target.

Speaking against the “super-agency” proposal, one long-time activist said, “We old-timers well remember when ‘our’ programs got low priority in the budget process.  We should remain scattered around, where we are a diffuse target,” thus  making it more difficult to cut funding for needed programs.

In addition to the practical objections, some advocates oppose a consolidation of services on principle.  “Aren’t we all about integration?” said blind advocate Tom Lijewski at the April 11th meeting.  “How can we model that if we are all bunched together, off to one side?”

Lijewski also questioned the value of cross-community knowledge, stating that “blind people know little about issues facing deaf people, who know little about wheelchairs.”  From this perspective, Lijewski pointed out, there would be little advantage to a consolidation of disability services.

Regardless of which bill or bills eventually pass, these workforce reorganization proposals will have significant effects on the provision of services for people with disabilities throughout the state for some time to come.  This leads some advocates to advise caution.  Toward the end of the April 11th meeting, a proposal was made that the CCD recommend to the legislature that they refrain from taking any action for now, to allow for more discussion with the grassroots.

To this, Yates responded that it was likely too late to slow this down.  “The Governor wants this, and nothing will stop him from working on this over the summer,” she stated.

The message seemed to be that “the train has left the station” on this issue due to the Governor’s insistence on fast action.  Advocates for people with disabilities are hoping that their voices will be heard in the process, so that they can attempt to influence how far that train will travel, and in which direction.