Legislature adds $10.8 million to DDS Turning 22 program

Turning 22 participants Dan Meaney and Austin Simonin, both 22, attend to their chores at Thimble Farm. —Sam Moore

Yesterday the Massachusetts House and Senate passed a $144.4 million supplemental budget that included Gov. Charlie Baker’s request for $10.8 million in additional funding for the Department of Developmental Services’ (DDS) Turning 22 program. The money will help provide employment services, day habilitation programs, and transportation for young adults moving out of the school system. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

The Times reported in late December 2016 on the commonwealth’s budget shortfall, which had left Island students in the high school’s special education transition class without support services when they aged out of the school system on their 22nd birthday.

“Because of the shortfall in the 2017 budget for Turning 22, many people graduated and didn’t receive supports and services,” said Maura Sullivan, director of government affairs for Arc of Massachusetts. “Some funds were used to serve the most in need, but there was a definite gap in services for quite a few people.”

Hope MacLeod, co-director of student support services for the Martha’s Vineyard Public School District, said Wednesday’s vote was “really great news.”

“We’re taking a more targeted look at how to support our young adults transitioning in a more meaningful and community-oriented way,” Ms. MacLeod said.

She explained that the school district has created a task force of educators, parents, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services staff, and others to address the 18- to 22-year-old special education students’ needs. Ms. MacLeod noted that it will be a couple of years before the next high school special education student turns 18, when transition services should begin in earnest.

“It’s a good time to be thoughtful and think about what we as a community are providing as these students leave the public school system,” Ms. MacLeod said.

Arc of Massachusetts and other advocacy groups descended on the State House before the vote to raise lawmakers’ awareness of disability needs and the impact a lack of services makes in the lives of families, caregivers, and those living with disabilities.

“It’s a big relief,” Ms. Sullivan said. “Everyone seems to understand the need to support these young adults as they transition to adult services.”

Rep. Dylan Fernandes applauded the approval of additional funds. “On Martha’s Vineyard and across our state, the Turning 22 Program provides crucial support and resources to young people who have a severe disability and to their families. It is important that we continue to fund programs that help protect and empower the most vulnerable in our society,” he said.

For Ms. Sullivan, the next step is to keep the momentum going so that Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed $24 million outlay to fully fund the Turning 22 program for fiscal 2018 stays on track. “There are about 980 students who will need these services,” Ms. Sullivan said, “and there’s no reason to think those numbers aren’t going to keep increasing.”