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State reverses course on sheltered workshop requirements

| Monday, March 13, 2017, 6:42 p.m.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Nearly 100 people load buses at the Clelian Heights School, in Hempfield Township, to testify before the state House Human Services Committee about the need to keep sheltered workshops available as an option for those who can’t work in competitive employment in the community, on Monday, March 13, 2017. The busses, filled with handicapped, families, and advocates, are joining an expected 1,000 people at the capital to advocate for the disabled workforce.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Lisa Liston, a staff member at Clelian Heights School, in Hempfield Township, waits for the last arrivals before two busses filled with disabled workers, their families, and advocates, head to Harrisburg to testify before the state House Human Services Committee about the need to keep sheltered workshops available as an option for those who can’t work in competitive employment in the community, on Monday, March 13, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Sister Deborah Lopez, executive director of Clelian Heights School, watches as buses filled with nearly 100 people leave the school for exceptional students, in Hempfield Township, to testify before the state House Human Services Committee about the need to keep sheltered workshops available as an option for those who can’t work in competitive employment in the community, on Monday, March 13, 2017. The busses, filled with handicapped, families, and advocates, are joining an expected 1,000 people at the capital to advocate for the disabled workforce.

A Harrisburg rally, originally scheduled as a protest to changes in state regulations regarding sheltered workshops, turned into a celebration Monday.

Hundreds of families gathered in the Capitol learned state officials were walking back requirements that would have spelled dramatic changes for handicapped adults.

The proposed guidelines, issued last year, would have required sheltered workshops to gradually transition disabled clients into competitive employment or volunteer jobs in the community, beginning in January 2018. Workshop operators said the guidelines were unrealistic, limited choices for families and clients happy with workshops and would have forced some facilities to close.

Furious families organized and filed comments with the state Department of Human Services. Monday, hundreds of them — including four busloads from Westmoreland County — poured into Harrisburg.

“We heard those comments, and we adjusted (the guidelines) as a result,” said Ted Dallas, secretary of the Department of Human Services. “I believe we received more comments on this than any other issue.”

Rather than require workshop clients to be gradually integrated into competitive employment or community service, reaching 75 percent of the time by Jan. 1, 2019, Dallas said the new proposals require that workshops offer clients the option of moving into competitive employment or community service 25 percent of the time by Sept. 1, 2018. It will be up to each individual's team of family and caseworkers to decide if they want to exercise that option.

Dallas insisted that the original proposal was never meant to be a mandate but an option for workshop participants.

Tim Miller, executive director of the Westmoreland County Blind Association, was one of the leaders of the letter-writing campaign that culminated in Monday's rally and hearing before the state House Human Services Committee. He said he was pleased with the responses it has triggered.

“I knew they would move some way, but they turned their story around a lot quicker than we believed they would,” Miller said. “If you'd told me in December they would have come around to this point, I'm not sure I'd have believed it.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stepped forward to support his group's position with the Wolf administration, he said.

Miller said families and workshop operators were quickly able to disabuse officials of the idea that workshops were exploiting clients or keeping them segregated from society.

They felt the ire of parents like Debbie Buff, 52, of Youngwood. She said she was furious when she learned that her son, 19-year-old Dylan, who attends Clelian Heights School, might be forced into settings his family feels would be harmful.

“They had no right to take away a choice for him. When he turned 18, we went to court and spent thousands of dollars to become his guardians so we could be sure to help him make those choices,” she said. “No way was the state of Pennsylvania going to tell us where our son would be placed. If he was able to go out into the community, I'd love that. But he is not.”

Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas attended the rally with his son Alex. The 20-year-old special needs student at the Clelian Heights School hopes to participate at the sheltered workshop there upon graduation. Kopas credited much of the change in Harrisburg to community response.

“The community really came together on this one, not just service providers, but also a lot of folks who don't have a personal stake in this. I think they heard our voices and made the necessary changes,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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