Monica Yant Kinney: Corbett won't dare mention the mentally disabled

The folks at Vision for Equality watch Gov. Corbett's budget speech. The group's director says the intellectually disabled are legally entitled to the costliest care if offered nothing else.
The folks at Vision for Equality watch Gov. Corbett's budget speech. The group's director says the intellectually disabled are legally entitled to the costliest care if offered nothing else. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 08, 2012

When a governor says little, every word counts. Referring to Pennsylvania's complicated and costly relationship with its most vulnerable citizens, Tom Corbett speaks only of a generic Welfare with a capital "W" - code for women having babies they can't afford.

"Welfare," Corbett reminded in yesterday's somber budget address, "does not produce wealth."

Then he went on to cite an uncharacteristically harsh quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt calling government aid "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."

Inside a Center City conference room, those who care for people with intellectual disabilities shifted uncomfortably in their seats listening to Corbett's speech. Their spirits had already suffered a beating from 6 percent funding cuts he imposed last year. Early word on the new $27.13 billion budget suggests this round will be twice as bruising.

Thousands of autistic children, mentally ill teenagers, and developmentally challenged adults are beholden to the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. The aid they receive is nothing like Welfare as you know it. It's welfare with a lowercase "w," a lifeline allowing them to reside with family or in a small group home, learn a skill, get around, even earn a few bucks.

Corbett doesn't dare mention the intellectually disabled when he talks about "rightsizing" DPW. If he did, he'd be seen as inflicting cruel and unusual punishment upon people in need through no fault of their own - people who will be in need as long as they're alive, people who will cost far more if Corbett's no-new-tax pledge slices so deep he forces them into nursing homes and institutions.

Stay focused

Joshua Young is the kind of giddy kid who raises his hand because it's fun, even when he has nothing to say. The 18-year-old Martin Luther King High School student is autistic. He's also an artist in the ROTC.

For most of the last decade, his father, Eugene Young, tells me, Joshua had an aide at his side for 35 hours a week in class. Corbett's previous cuts reduced those hours by more than two-thirds. God knows if the young man will have any help for his final three years in special education.

"Josh learns, but he needs someone to keep him focused," Young tells me, adding that he was already fighting efforts to relegate the teen to a "life-skills" track where he would "just wipe tables and sweep floors."

More than 50,000 intellectually disabled Pennsylvanians receive state welfare services, but an additional 17,000 languish on a waiting list that moved slowly before and has been all but frozen by funding cuts. In-home or community-based aid can cost up to $40,000 a year, a bargain compared to $280,000 to institutionalize just one person.

Though only 1,700 individuals currently reside in such state-run facilities, Audrey Coccia of the nonprofit Vision for Equality says that the intellectually disabled are actually legally entitled to the most expensive option if offered nothing else.

"Those 17,000 families on the waiting list could go knocking on Corbett's door tomorrow and demand a place in an institution," she says drily. "He's counting on no one wanting that."

The human cost of austerity

Mitchell Gaskins, 32, considers himself lucky for landing a spot in a Northeast Philadelphia group home with two roommates after his grandmother died. He has a part-time job taking license photos for PennDot.

Special People in Northeast (SPIN) operates 85 group homes like Gaskins', spending roughly $350,000 for 24/7 staffing and maintenance, according to president Kathy Brown McHale. She frets that DPW may be looking to stuff even more disabled people into each home for savings or stability.

"We promise people the idea of a normal life," she says. "Eight adults in one home is a mini-institution."

McHale has already laid off 100 of 1,000 employees and slashed hours for survivors. The new budget reductions will hit bone.

"This is a people business," she explains. "We can only cut people."

And yet, by the end of the speech, the mothers, fathers and advocates for the vulnerable wisely noted how Corbett avoided any mention of those who pay for his austerity.

"Every dollar taken in tax is one less dollar in the hands of a jobholder or job creator," he says, without noting that holding the line at any cost means further burdening those already shouldering more than most of us could ever bear.

"This administration does not believe they are putting people at risk," says Horizon House CEO Jeff Wilush. "They're going to realize it too late."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read more stories of the intellectually disabled at

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