Changes could leave mentally disabled without place to work

Program directed to shift services from segregated to integrated
Changes could leave mentally disabled without place to work
Yael Kerzan

The smile on her face speaks volumes about what this means. Yael Kerzan has been working at Northwood Inc. of Wisconsin for eight years. While the products she works to package go out of the business every day — her smile never leaves.

“I love getting up in the morning and getting ready by myself and you know, I’m smiling because it is a job. You know people with disabilities should have a right to work wherever they want to work. I know I want to work here,” Kerzan said.

For 39 years Northwood Inc. of Wisconsin has been offering jobs and job training to individuals with mental disabilities. The not-for-profit corporation employs 95 people in the Portage facility. While they teach people how to work, they also teach them how to live.

“It is about a lot of things beyond just the job and the job itself brings with it what jobs bring to anybody. It brings self-esteem, it brings self-worth, it brings a meaning of why to get up in the morning,” said Jeff Aerts, president and CEO of Northwood Inc. of Wisconsin.

How much longer Northwood and organizations like it are able to employ the mentally disabled is in doubt. Those programs are funded through the Family Care program in Wisconsin.

The Family Care program receives and distributes funds from the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That agency has directed states to shift services for the mentally disabled from segregated programs to integrated community settings.

Advocates for the mentally disabled believe it is unrealistic to ask those individuals to compete in the general workplace.

“People are going to end up sitting at home or are maybe not going to have the supervision they need,” Aerts said.

The shift in policy is an extension of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Olmstead decision. That court ruling struck down the institutionalization of individuals with disabilities. In the decision the court required public agencies to provide services “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the qualified individuals with disabilities.”

Advocates for the mentally disabled believe this is an untended extension of the court ruling.

“The people who work here don’t feel like they are being segregated. They feel like they are part of a community,” Aerts said.

The impact of this change will be felt throughout the State of Wisconsin. Aerts said that approximately 10,000 individuals and their families will be impacted.

Under the plan the funding for programs like Northwood would be phased out over a five-year period. During that time new client workers would not be accepted to the program and at the end of the five-year period all funding would end.

Public comment is being accepted by the State of Wisconsin for a 30-day period ending on Sept. 2. After that time comments will be reviewed and changes will be considered.

If change doesn’t come it will leave Kerzan out of a job.

“I would cry. I would cry because I don’t want to sit at home. I just want to come here to work,” Kerzan said.