Special Needs and Persons with Disabilities
As your next County Executive, I want Montgomery County to become a national model for inclusion of persons of all special needs and disabilities.
Montgomery County residents have long been leaders in helping those with special needs and disabilities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, an international figure for social justice and someone I was proud to know and call a friend, created the Special Olympics right here in Montgomery County. Her children, also products of Montgomery County, have carried on her torch throughout the world. Jim and Joan Sullivan started Potomac Community Resources as a way to allow their daughter Patricia to live a fuller life, and it has become a force for good here in the County helping those with developmental differences do just the same. These are just some of residents’ countless stories throughout Montgomery County helping and serving others. As the next County Executive, I will build upon these stories and together we will do much more to ensure we are as an inclusive a community as possible for each and every resident.
Children and Adults with special needs and disabilities are an increasingly important issue not only in Montgomery County and Maryland but nationwide and I plan to address the issue head on.
We have seen a steady and unprecedented rise in those afflicted with special needs and disabilities. For example, the number of children in Maryland identified as having an autism spectrum disorder has increased by 100% since 2004, making it the most prevalent disability statewide.
Throughout this campaign, I have met with leaders of local community providers as well as families impacted by special needs and disabilities to better understand the most urgent issues facing this growing population. Their stories are harrowing and as a County Government that prides itself on providing the best quality of life for all of its residents we can and must do more to help these families. The status quo is not good enough. We can do better with stronger, effective and responsible leadership.
As your next County Executive, Montgomery County will become a national leader in helping special needs and disabled youth transition into adulthood by working with community leaders, parents and other invested parties coming up with a plan and following through on that plan.
I will create a Special Needs Task Force upon being elected to address the priorities of this population as they relate to: education, jobs, housing, transportation and therapeutic recreation in order to improve, strengthen and expand programs and services for people of all ages with special needs.
Education is my number one priority and when elected it will be this County’s number one priority once again — and open up the doors of opportunity for every child in Montgomery County. Now more than ever, because of the widening achievement gap and severely overcrowded classrooms, we need to ensure consistency across all programs so each and every student receives a world-class education, no matter where they come from and regardless of ability, race or social status.
Working together with school leaders, special education teachers, parents and students, we will ensure a coordinated effort to assure availability of resources. I will also fight for our schools in Annapolis to get our fair share of funding for all our students countywide. Most importantly, I commit to special needs students being heard – too often the voices of these students themselves are excluded from the very conversation to which their contribution is vital to ensuring their academic needs are met.
Educational opportunities must extend to the adult disability community as well; this principle has never been more important to the development of a robust economy. The County needs programs for our transitioning youth designed to identify specific talents and strengths that can be nurtured into employable skills. Among the responsibilities of the Special Needs Task Force will be the development of vocational programs designed to provide job training to persons with special needs to prepare them for the workforce in a variety of positions for which they can be competitive. Very often, persons with special needs are uniquely qualified to assume certain tasks. However, It is well known that nationwide the disability community is the most underemployed and underpaid, which is both tragically unjust and a huge waste of potential.
The best examples of capitalizing on the special needs’ competitive potential are the software corporation SAP and U.S. Mortgage lender Fannie Mae who both recently launched employment initiatives aimed at hiring persons with autism. As these employers quite rightly recognized, harnessing the unique skills and perspective of persons on the spectrum can strengthen their businesses and make them more competitive globally. We need to follow in their example and create similar employment initiatives, as well as private-public partnerships, aimed at job growth for the disabled.
We need to ensure that the successful internships filled by special needs employees develop into permanent jobs, recognizing that all persons want to be contributing members of our community. I envision Montgomery County becoming a national model for inclusion and employment of persons with special needs to which other counties nationwide can look.
Regarding affordable housing, the focus has too often been narrowly defined without adequate representation of the disabled, who are themselves often among the County’s poorest residents. Particularly as the disabled community continues to grow, our County must have adequate funding to house them. Current demand for housing far exceeds supply, and the shortage of state and County funding in recent years has forced local community providers to turn away deserving residents. If elected I pledge to advocate in Annapolis for our rightful share of finances based on our population’s housing needs, and fight to ensure that existing community providers have ample state funds to continue the extraordinary work they do.
People with disabilities have a wide range of transportation needs. The county needs to work collaboratively with Metro and Maryland Department of Transportation to create alternatives to para-transit services as additional options for those who need them and involve the disability community when making changes in Ride On services or when building new developments. More work is needed to coordinate transportation resources across the county. Greater attention is needed to obstacles created for people with mobility challenges when snow is plowed onto sidewalks, when construction projects are allowed to block sidewalks and bus stops, and to improve pedestrian-friendly and safe residential and commercial development.
Finally, I recognize that Montgomery County has been a leader in providing both inclusive and specialized recreation for all ages, but we still can do more. Under federal law, we must make sure that the amount of courses offered for the special needs community be proportionate to the actual percentage of special needs residents. The Special Needs Task Force will be charged with examining the therapeutic recreation and other recreation programs to make certain that recreational opportunities are commensurate with our special needs population.
Montgomery County is changing, and the special needs community is a part of that. As Mrs. Shriver’s brother once said, “change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” As a County, we must embrace this change and do everything we can to make sure that all residents are welcomed, protected and offered the best quality of life possible.
The Special Needs Task Force will shine a bright light on the specific needs of this community, and my strong hands-on leadership will ensure that there is follow through so that the job gets done. As your next County Executive, because of my vision and my proven track record of successfully getting things done, Montgomery county will become a national model for inclusion of persons of all special needs and disabilities.