By Alex Weisler
A panel of Westchester County legislators and their representatives heard from individuals across the developmental disabilities community last Thursday during a panel discussion on state funding organized by Arc of Westchester.
The annual event was convened by Executive Director Richard Swierat at the organization’s headquarters in Hawthorne in an effort to identify and develop strategies to navigate state funding challenges.
“Our budget this year is more about policy and discussion,” Swierat said. “A good deal of the governor’s budget proposal has to do with the changing times we are heading into, not exactly where we are now.”
The panel consisted of state senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Ruth Hassell-Thompson and state assemblymen Robert Castelli and Tom Abinanti. Representatives of Assemblywoman Amy Paulin and senators Greg Ball and Suzi Oppenheimer were also in attendance.
Castelli said he vowed to continue the fight to preserve funding.
“The last thing in the world we should cut are services and funding to the most vulnerable parts of our society,” he said. “You have my word–I will fight for you.”
Advocates from across the developmental disabilities community, representing broad interests and specialized issues like preschool care and high-functioning autism/Asperger’s disease, brought a range of issues to the table.
One of the hot topics discussed by the group was the need to codify and maintain funding for early intervention programs.
Castelli said it’s sometimes difficult to get the needs of the developmental disabilities community to stand out in Albany.
“I think it’s no surprise that you have a multitude of special interests up there,” he said. “Those people unfortunately have the tendency to drown out the voices of individuals whose causes may be more immediate, and in some cases, more important.”
Also discussed was a measure that would force a separation between the medical professionals who conduct screenings and those who administer treatments.
Abinanti said he’s unhappy that finances seem to be a higher priority in Albany than patient quality of life.
“What I’m seeing is an emphasis on costs, not kids, and that’s disturbing,” he said. “We’re seeing a loss of attention as to what the services actually are producing.”
Also raising Abinanti’s ire was a bill that would transfer the oversight of services from the county to individual school districts.
“They want to tie the people who give the services to the people who get the services, and they think it’ll cut down on unnecessary services,” he said. “Well, none of us think the services are unnecessary.”
Hassell-Thompson told the group it’s important for legislators focused on disabilities issues to enlighten their colleagues who may not be as aware.
“I think that we have a responsibility to continue to educate people and not allow ourselves to be frustrated by the fact that they don’t understand what we’re talking about,” she said.
Lesli Cattan, a program coordinator with the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, said she was glad she attended the event.
“I thought it was very helpful and important to share our concerns with our state legislators and local legislators,” she said.
The panel offered a chance “to educate each other about what our struggles are,” she said.
“The senators clearly said they needed the education.”