Joe Mielczarek: 'Hopefully we can reallocate and reeducate [around] those issues to get people with disabilities in the community at a lesser cost.'
Joe Mielczarek has been advocating for people with disabilities for 40 years. Some say that's why he was put on this earth. "That's what my wife tells me," he says.
Mielczarek, retired from his job as a college counselor for students with disabilities, now chairs the Governor's Committee for People with Disabilities. The group is gearing up in response to a recent survey by United Cerebral Palsy that measures quality of life for people with disabilities. According to the annual survey, Wisconsin's ranking dropped this year from 20th in the nation to 27th.
In Mielczarek's eyes, Wisconsin has fallen even further over the years. "The country [used to look] at Wisconsin for being innovative, progressive, and getting things done [for people with disabilities]," he says.
In response to the survey, the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations is offering suggestions (PDF) for improving the quality of life for people with disabilities in Wisconsin. The coalition represents 40 different groups throughout the state.
Tom Masseau, co-chair of the coalition and executive director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, says that some other states found ways to expand and improve their services over the last year.
Minnesota, for example, closed its last state-run institution for people with disabilities in June 2011. Wisconsin has two such centers remaining. The Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Union Grove and the Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Madison house over 450 people with disabilities.
These state institutions are being phased out for a few different reasons. "Historically institutions have been where individuals have been warehoused and isolated," says Mike Gill, a visiting assistant professor at UW-Madison with a doctorate in disability studies.
Since the late 1960s there's been a move to reintegrate people with disabilities from institutions back into the community with residential, educational, and vocational support, says Gill.
While the move away from institutions emphasizes individual rights and liberties, it is also more cost effective. The Survival Coalition reports the annual cost of institutional living at $288,350 per person. And while transitioning away from institutions will challenge the state -- and is not uniformly supported by some families or providers who think there remains a role for such institutions -- it can use the money saved to provide care for the people with disabilities who are still on wait lists for social services.
The Survival Coalition drafted a number of suggestions, which the governor's committee will present to Gov. Scott Walker and select state agencies. The group will ask the governor to make Wisconsin an "Employment First State" by executive order, providing training, support, and/or tax breaks to organizations that employ people with disabilities. The group will also ask the state to extend long-term support programs to all 72 counties.
Advocates hope this report will motivate legislators, departments and the governor to better incorporate people with disabilities into the community and work force by expanding residential, employment and transportation services.
Gill says that studies like the one conducted by United Cerebral Palsy are "important to track to see not only how effective the services are but to determine the segment of the population that is still needing services."
Masseau and Mielczarek hope the coalition's suggestions for improvement will be implemented and start to have a positive impact on people's lives.
"Hopefully we can reallocate and reeducate [around] those issues to get people with disabilities in the community at a lesser cost, which will increase their quality of life," says Mielczarek. "People, if given the choice and given the resources, will rise to the highest level, instead of sinking to the lowest level."