It Takes a Team

By Bernard A. Krooks, Past President, Special Needs Alliance

Dignity, security and personal fulfillment are essential to the quality of life that all individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities deserve. But they face a tangled social, political and legal landscape, and it often requires the coordinated efforts of relatives, friends and special needs professionals to help them map their way.

Family members, of course, play a central role, offering emotional support and encouragement, planning for long-term financial security and frequently acting as primary caregivers. For some, they’re an individual’s most effective advocates, reinforcing their point of view with intimate understanding of a loved one’s needs.

Yet all too often, dreams face constraints.  Landmark legislation has recognized the civil rights of individuals with disabilities, and great strides have been made regarding social inclusion. But these hard-won victories are incomplete, and budget debates at all levels of government threaten even the programs already in place. Self-advocates, families and their supporters –advocacy organizations such as The Arc, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, the Special Needs Alliance and many others–must continue their unstinting demand that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as others to lead self-directed, satisfying lives.

Then there are the special ed teachers, speech therapists, psychologists, career counselors and many other service providers who assist those with disabilities on a daily basis to realize their potential. These committed professionals challenge, guide and applaud those they serve in order to build the skills needed for self-reliance. They help provide a foundation for the aspirations of individuals and their families.

As a child with disabilities matures, families must often balance concern for their safety and well-being with a desire to encourage their independence. In most states, individuals are considered legal adults at 18, with full responsibility for their own financial, legal and healthcare choices. Special needs attorneys are sensitive to these deeply personal matters and can guide parents in their deliberations concerning various forms of guardianship, power of attorney and health care proxy, as necessary, and in ways to optimize self-direction.

Then there are financial considerations. The specialized care required by some individuals with developmental disabilities is costly. While many expenses are covered by public programs, there are gaps, and qualifying is usually means-based.  Families, financial advisors and special needs attorneys should begin partnering early to evaluate an individual’s long-term needs, eligibility for benefits, the amount of money necessary to make up the difference between what is covered and what is not, and how to protect those funds while receiving government assistance.

Self-advocates are increasingly shaping their own destinies. It takes a team to assist them with the tools to succeed.

The Special Needs Alliance (SNA), a national non-profit comprised of attorneys who assist individuals with special needs, their families and the professionals who serve them, has formed a strategic partnership with The Arc.  The relationship is intended to facilitate collaboration at the local, state and national level on issues such as providing educational resources to families, building public awareness, and advocating for legislative and regulatory change.