Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alaska disability advocates press Gov. Palin, state lawmakers for support


JUNEAU, Alaska -- When the Key Coalition comes to town, children with special needs fill the Capitol hallway, along with people in wheelchairs and with seeing-eye dogs.

The coalition goes to Juneau every year to raise awareness about people with disabilities and to improve services. They're hard to miss, yet their friends and family say they seem to miss out on a lot.

Advocates for people with developmental disabilities feel they have a hard time getting heard, but since the governor gave birth to Trig, her child with Down Syndrome, a lot has changed.

In her State of the State speech, Gov. Sarah Palin promised more support for children with special needs, such as giving more money to screen children with autism.

Those at a rally Wednesday worry that lawmakers don't understand what's
at stake. Hundreds of people with development disabilities are on waiting lists for services.

One child, Jonah, was born with brain damage on the left side of his brain, but he got the services he needed.

"He's living proof, because he wasn't walking, he wasn't talking and because he's had over two years of services, he's much more independent," Jonah's mother Kamah Gregory said.

But with so many children on the waiting list, other kids may not fare so well.

"All we're asking you for is one word, and that's 'justice,'" disability service advocate Steve Leshko said. "Remember the old saying that 'Justice isn't something you go out and shop for or something you find, it's something you create.'"

Advocates are also asking for more support for home services for the elderly and developmentally disabled so it can keep them out of costly institutions.

But even with the governor's support they know that the dollars will be tough to come by, and their battle is far from over.

One of the bills the Key Coalition supports is sponsored by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, that would require the state to review Medicaid rates for services provided at home for the elderly and the disabled.

Nursing homes and other facilities get rate adjustments, but rates for services provided at home do not, so a lot of therapists and people trained to work with the disabled end up leaving the state.

Ellis said it would be a good investment for the state, because as the population ages, more people are going to need at-home services, which are cheaper to provide than building a new nursing home.