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January 21, 2003

Disabled testify against cuts to human services

From: Great Falls Tribune, MT - 21 Jan 2003

Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA -- State lawmakers heard more pleas Monday to keep human service programs intact, this time from disabled people who find and keep jobs with help from the state.

"We prefer to work, rather than live on the street, or in bread lines or soup kitchens or on welfare," said Ken Carlson of Great Falls, who works at Goodwill Industries.

Carlson testified against proposed cuts in several vocational rehabilitation programs offered by the state.

Gov. Judy Martz is proposing to cut in half the $2.3 million in state funding for these programs over the next two years.

The programs provide "job coaches" and other assistance to the disabled, helping them find, learn and keep jobs, so they can earn a living and stay off welfare or other assistance.

"They want to be viable, wage-earning members of their community," said Pat Molloy of Quality Life Services in Great Falls, which helps the disabled find jobs.

People with disabilities of all shapes and sizes traveled to Helena to speak before the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services, which will make initial recommendations on the human service budget.

Those testifying included people who are deaf or blind, people with brain injuries, and people who have multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. All of them have jobs, thanks to the help from vocational rehabilitation programs from the state, they said.

Alicia Mason of Helena, who spoke through a sign-language translator, said job coaches helped her find a job as dishwasher at St. Peter's Hospital, helped her learn the job and communicate with her co-workers.

"Without the support and help of my job coach, I would not be able to keep my job at the hospital," she said.

Mitch Bradley, the manager of Smith's Grocery in Helena, testified in favor of the programs, saying his store employs several disabled people. The state assistance has been vital in helping them learn their jobs and live independently, he said.

"I feel it would be a great tragedy to lose any funding for this program due to the budget cuts," he said.

Several Great Falls residents also testified in favor of a program that provides telephone equipment for the deaf, allowing them to make calls independently.

The Montana Telecommunications Access Program, funded by a tax on telephone lines, is not scheduled for any cuts. In fact, the Martz administration has proposed increasing its spending from $2.2 million this biennium to $2.9 million for the 2004-05 biennium.

However, the tax revenue is not keeping up with the expenditures. The account will be nearly depleted by the end of 2005, budget figures show.

Ron Bibler, a Great Falls certified financial planner who is deaf, said he has more than 200 clients and relies on equipment from MTAP to make and receive calls on his own.

"It gives them a sense of relief that I can call my clients and they can call me," he said.

Betty Van Tighem of Great Falls, who spoke through a sign-language interpreter, said she "never had any privacy growing up," because she had to make telephone calls with the help of relatives or friends.

MTAP has allowed her to become more independent, she said, and it is a "wonderful blessing to all of us."

Copyright © 2003 Great Falls Tribune. All Rights Reserved.