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‘Historic’ investment possible for Virginia’s disabled community

Members of Arc of Virginia, a group that supports the state's disabled community, rally at the Capitol during the 2024 legislative session.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Members of Arc of Virginia, a group that supports the state's disabled community, rally at the Capitol during the 2024 legislative session.

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s rare that leadership in Virginia’s political branches find agreement, especially in spending fights. But one area where both Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Democrats appear to be in agreement is what advocates are calling a historic investment in the state’s disability waiver system.

It’s a crisp March afternoon and I’m getting a tour of Juan Rivas’ new apartment on the east side of Richmond.

Rivas is 43 and was born in New York City with a developmental disability. He was in and out of support homes with his brother, moving around the country, and at times, living on the street as he struggled to get the support he needed to live on his own.

“Being homeless and stuff, it's crazy," Rivas said. "It’s hard for me to find an apartment on my own.”

Rivas was homeless recently, but that changed last year when he was linked with the folks at Arc of Virginia, who helped him sign up for Virginia’s Developmental Disability, or DD, waiver program.

About 16,000 other Virginians are waiting for support in the state’s DD waiver system, which can be life changing. There are three priority categories, with Priority One being made up of those with the highest level of need. For Rivas, who was Priority One because of his lack of support or a home, it includes a housing voucher, medical care, residential support and other benefits. But the most important is the ability to live alone, and it’s an issue the state has grappled with for over a decade.

“People don’t want to live their lives surrounded by other people with disabilities. They want to be working, be employed, be volunteering," said Teri Morgan, director of Virginia’s Board for People with Disabilities. "Participating in recreation and other things in the community with other people with and without disabilities.”

The board is a federally-funded state organization that monitors how Virginia treats people with disabilities. She said the state’s history of treating the developmentally disabled is dark. State-run institutions were run so poorly the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in in 2012. A settlement with federal officials included the closure of those institutions and enhanced monitoring to make sure the disabled were being treated in line with civil rights laws.

The key to those civil rights laws is the ability to live in less communal settings, or even alone with support like what Rivas is getting.

The good news: both Governor Glenn Youngkin and Democratic leadership appear to have agreed on investing over $300 million dollars into the DD waiver system. That’s enough to cover the 3,400 applicants on the Priority One list.

"It's historic. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself that this is happening in Virginia," said Arc of Virginia's Lucy Cantrell, who thanked Youngkin for putting the funds in his budget.

Here’s Youngkin's Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel.

“The additional increase will have more providers and provide more services," Littel told Radio IQ. "So, that will make it easier for folks to get out and into the community.”

Littel has been working in the public medical field for decades, including a stint in the 90s under then-Governor George Allen. But even with that experience, he wasn’t prepared for Youngkin to be so sympathetic to a long-ignored community, one he said the governor got close with on the campaign trail.

“Meeting people, meeting families, understanding the struggles they had, but most importantly the anxiety and fears they had, just wondering what would happen with their child," Littel said.

That’s just the kind of fear experienced by Ken and Sue Utterback. They’re part of the Arc of Rockingham, both in their late 60s while their son, Steven, is in his 40s. Steven has the mind of a four-year-old, is non-verbal and requires constant support. They’ve been on the DD waiver wait list for over 20 years.

“Are you planning on spending your retirement years begging your government for services for your disabled child?" Sue asked at a rally supporting disability waiver funding at the Capitol in Richmond during the legislative session. "I hope not, because that’s what we’ve been doing.”

She was grateful for Youngkin and Democrats' interest in funding the neediest developmentally disabled folks. But she noted in a phone call months after the rally that her son’s lower on the priority list and won't be included in the wave of new funding.

That leaves her family with... “Nothing. We just sit on that list and fill out forms.”

As for Teri Morgan with the state’s disability board, she’s waiting with bated breath for a funding promise that isn’t confirmed quite yet.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful, and I see commitment, but behind closed doors, what happens remains to be seen,” she said.

Youngkin and Democrats are both currently running around the state promoting their competing budgets. Youngkin will send legislators a counter proposal by April 8th.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.