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Opinion D.C. must not backtrack on its improvement in care for people with disabilities

(Simone Becchetti/iStock)

Bob Williams, a former commissioner of the federal Administration on Developmental Disabilities, worked as senior adviser at the D.C. Department on Disability Services and, from 1984 to 1990, monitored conditions at Forest Haven.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) should immediately reverse the decision by the D.C. Department on Disability Services to abruptly cancel its 13-year contract with Georgetown University to provide health-care services to hundreds of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that the agency serves. For decades, the Georgetown University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, one of 56 such federally funded programs in the country, has been instrumental in improving the lives of children, adults and older people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the 1980s, University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities professionals worked the back wards of Forest Haven, the notorious asylum then run by the District, when few wanted anything to do with the place or those who lived there. I worked those same back wards as a court-appointed monitor and witnessed how center staff helped people develop the strength and balance to use a wheelchair, eat on their own and gain other skills.

Thirteen years ago, when the Department on Disability Services contracted with the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, the system was again badly broken, and people were suffering because of it. Many were hospitalized needlessly, developed untreated illnesses, lost hard-earned skills and worse. Today, the system is still not perfect. However, no one disputes the tremendous gains made because of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Its team is expert in providing high-quality, coordinated health-care services for people with complex medical, developmental and communications needs. The approach is rightly seen as a model for the nation.

Department on Disability Services Director Andrew Reese says he is making this move by the end of August because the agency is ready to assume these responsibilities itself. However, his rationale is belied by the fact that the decision was made and would be carried out with little to no planning or consultation with the individuals, families and providers who would be most affected by this radical change. The District has a long legacy of doing the wrong thing by such individuals. Great progress has been made in the past decade in making amends for this tortured history. Canceling this contract stymies that progress.

Laura Nuss, a former Department of Disability Services director who successfully led efforts to turn the system around, told Post columnist Theresa Vargas that pulling out of it “carte blanche . . . is just irresponsible” and increases the risks “exponentially.” At a recent D.C. Council hearing, dozens of individuals with disabilities, family members, providers and others shared equally dire concerns.

The mayor should heed these warnings by instructing the Department on Disability Services to keep the arrangement in place for at least another year so that the entire matter can be properly reviewed and action taken in consultation with all stakeholders. To do less puts people at needless risk and breaches trust — neither of which is acceptable.

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