The Good Fight

One of my main tools for finding balance within a frenetic work pace has always been running; injuries have lead me to retire my running shoes, but I still love to walk.  And when I need to blow off a little steam, I take long walks around the downtown Lansing area.  I am grateful for the exercise, and grounded by the familiarity of my surroundings – I grew up here, as did both my parents.  The house my grandfather built is just around the corner; the park where my father used to ride his horse as a youngster is across the street; outside an office window, I view the spire of the church where his family worshipped.  And outside another window, I see the installation pictured below – the stained glass art is new, but serves as a marker for Old Central high school, where my dad was educated; the concrete casing in which that glass is housed was originally the sign for the downtown YMCA, where I learned to swim as a kid.

Even when driving home, my route often takes me past the house where my mother grew up, also adjacent to downtown.  So as I travel among the familiar, bringing the calming sense of firm foundations, I also relive many of the lessons learned from my parents – and look for opportunities to apply them, in a world very different from the one in which these values were refined.  My dad represents the Greatest Generation – raised during the Depression, a decorated soldier in World War II, came home to start a family and a career marked by stability, integrity, and fulfillment of responsibility; my mother was 4 when her father passed away – 6 weeks after the stock market crashed, and just a few days before Christmas.  She was raised by a single mom, sharing her childhood home as a boarding house for family income, and grew into a determined, stalwart (some might say stubborn) lady.

My father taught me how to box as a kid; with big, 16-ounce gloves – keep your hands up, your feet moving, your eyes open, and look for an opportunity to score.  But my mother taught me how to fight; to make the most of what you are given, to advocate relentlessly for those about whom you care deeply, and to achieve solutions and the desired outcome.

We have arrived in the midst of an era of transformational change, and can no longer rely on maintaining the status quo – in programming or policy – to ensure that MARO members are successful in achieving their mission, and that their impact is valued by our communities.  Yet as mission driven businesses, many of us have grown accustomed to the acknowledgement of good work that comes with serving others; but the terms of engagement have changed.  We find ourselves in a fight to affirm the connection between the services and supports provided by the organizations that comprise our association and the benefit to each person served. When we are questioned, it is important not to retreat in defensiveness, but welcome a renewed emphasis on optimal levels of inclusion and independence – ideals we have embraced as service providers as our foundation.  We lean on the strength of that foundation, and celebrate the elevated expectations for all that are emerging in our field – navigating innovative service delivery models, while protecting the rights of our most vulnerable citizens to choose the type of services they receive and the environment in which they receive them, from a full array of options.  We can also build on this foundation of lessons learned over the last 50 years of serving, while adapting to a policy and service landscape that will look dramatically different in the years ahead.

The announcement of the likely passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) brought a standing ovation from the audience at the MARO Spring Leadership Conference in June 2014.  The laudable goal of establishing competitive employment in an integrated setting as the desired outcome for vocational rehabilitation services is embraced by MARO; however, in implementation, the Department of Education has delivered guidance that disinherits the tradition of partnership between VR and community rehabilitation organizations, attempting to exclude an entire class of employers from consideration as a successful outcome. And if departmental guidance issues arbitrary direction excluding CROs from being a part of the solution to this challenge, we must fight to sustain and enhance the positive impact on persons served and communities all over Michigan.

Click to view MARO Action Alert on how to participate in this fight.

The stated intent of the Medicaid Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) rule is to protect individual choice and promote community integration – again, well aligned with the purpose of MARO and the mission of our members.  But through the first 3 years of a 5 year process to implement this rule, Michigan’s provider community and the individuals and families served through this community remain concerned that services supported with HCBS funding may be at risk if the setting chosen by the individual is located in a facility, or at an event, dedicated to serving persons with disabilities.  An interpretation of the HCBS rules that that does not facilitate individual choice regarding services and supports, and who provides them, would be overly restrictive and inconsistent with the rule’s intent.  We must therefore fight to ensure fidelity with the HCBS rule’s purpose – the dual mandate that beneficiaries across Michigan have the opportunity to receive services in a manner that protects individual choice and promotes community integration.

Click to view the public comments submitted by MARO on Michigan’s Transition Plan for HCBS compliance.

I consider it a privilege to participate in this association’s efforts to promote access, inclusion, and independence for Michigan’s citizens with disabilities and other barriers.  And it has become a fight – not a match against an opponent, not the simplistic, sound-byte driven verbal sparring of opposing candidates; this is not a media opportunity for self-promoting political or policy debates.  It is a fight FOR something – specifically, to ensure that the implementation of federal disability policy honors its noble intent. We must fight by having difficult conversations in a civil tone with those of differing points of view; by forging collaborative relationships to achieve better outcomes for persons served – sometimes with those same folks with whom we disagree.  By remaining unwaveringly true to the principles that lead to greater independence and inclusion, each individual’s journey to enhance quality of life will remain self-determined, person-centered, with assurance of dignity and respect for all.

I look forward to continuing the good fight.