IM this article to a friend!

February 2, 2003

Budget cuts hurt Oklahoma's disabled

From: Oklahoma Daily, OK - 02 Feb 2003

More than $2 million in cuts threaten programs and athletics.

by Justin Noel Shimko - Daily Staff Writer
February 03, 2003

Oklahoma's disabled citizens have been feeling the crunch of the budget crisis from the state and federal governments.

During the financial shortfalls, the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services has lost $2 million from cuts by the State Legislature and the Office of State Finance through additional cuts based on state revenue. That money has grown to $3.5 million through funds matched by the federal government.

One of the hardest hit programs under the DRS is education. The School for the Deaf and the School for the Blind have lost $868,771 in the current fiscal year, resulting in losses of programs and athletic activities along with medical care for the resident students.

Karen Kizzia, superintendent of the School for the Blind, said the cuts have hit hard for the students, especially this month when a weekend wrestling event had to be canceled because accommodations for the students during the weekend could not be financially met.

"This is hard for the students," Kizzia said. "Wrestling is like football for these kids. That is their sport."

The DRS' funding was bad enough before the Office of State Finance started cutting, said Jody Harlan, spokeswoman for the DRS. It has worsened with the additional cuts the budget watchdog agency has made.

Because of state laws, the state finance office cannot leave one agency alone and cut others. The office must cut equally from all agencies.

To compensate, 81 positions were left vacant this year and summer training programs were canceled, Harlan said.

She said the cuts have been so harsh, the vocational rehabilitation services can no longer accept new applicants to accommodate for the cuts.

"We're still serving current clients, but new people, even people who only need to buy a battery for a wheelchair, we cannot help," Harlan said.

John E. Orr, DRS Commission chairman, said the funding losses are devastating and not looking better.

"We are losing access to federal matching dollars that DRS could buy for 25 cents," he said. "That investment brings federal taxes paid by Oklahoma citizens back to our state and benefits citizens with disabilities who become taxpayers."

Kizzia said that despite the hard budget projections, she still sees a silver lining.

"The silver lining I've seen is not in the budget," she said. "It has been in the rallying behind the school."

The school has had staff and students, along with parents, supporting the school whenever they can, Kizzia said. The school has a 75 percent success rate in having its graduates acquire jobs afterward, 30 percent above the national average. Kizzia said this shows the support the state has in the school and its children.

"We want our students to be self-sufficient, productive citizens of the state," Kizzia said.

With the loss of money, it is unknown how much the DRS and the school will be able to help next year.

© 2003 The Oklahoma Daily, Student Media at The University of Oklahoma. All rights reserved.