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Funds Slashed For People With Disabilities


A network of Florida facilities that supports people with disabilities will lose nearly $1.6 million this year – just as the social services provided by the network are needed most.

Florida’s Centers for Independent Living, or CILs, help people with disabilities navigate job placement, housing, transportation, health care and other services.“People with disabilities should have the same options and choices,” says Shelley Gottsagen, the development and community relations manager for the Center for Independent Living of South Florida in Miami. The center she works with offers a range of services from employment counseling to lessons in balancing a checkbook and shopping for groceries.

The CILs were born out of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They meet the mandate to provide vocational rehabilitation services and advocacy for people with disabilities.

Like many other social services, Florida’s 16 contracted CILs have lost annual funding at the state and federal levels during the economic downturn.

But a unique feature of the CIL funding structure has led to the most significant cuts: Social Security reimbursements.

Every time a CIL helps a person with Social Security benefits get a job, the Social Security Administration reimburses the network – up to $3.5 million per year. That money gets reinvested into the independent living services.

Before the recession, because enough people with disabilities were finding jobs with the support of the CILs, all $3.5 million in funding was made available by the federal government.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Now, with unemployment rates at 9.4% in Florida, finding jobs for people with disabilities is especially difficult. And as a result, Social Security reimbursements are down since CILs are placing fewer people in jobs.

“More highly educated people are taking more menial jobs,” says Gottsagen. She points out that depending on their disabilities, the people she works with may be qualified for jobs on paper but have other barriers like transportation or adaptive technologies.

This year, the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation – the agency that distributes the state, federal and Social Security funds – says it will only be able to promise about $2 million in Social Security funds to the Florida CILs.

“We deeply regret the impact this is having on services to people with disabilities across Florida,” says Julia Kates, a program manager with the division. Kates says that the agency will distribute any excess funds that might come in from Social Security, but that the state can’t distribute money that it doesn’t think it will have.

“It’s the social services that very often have to pay the price,” says Kelly Greene, executive director of the Center for Independent Living of South Florida.

Greene says she has already made cuts to services and staff. She’s down to one full-time job counselor who now works on commission. She recently had to tell someone who needed a wheelchair repaired that she could not help him. She could not find the funds.

In Tampa, Deodat Jhoda has an acute understanding of what life can be like without CIL support for people with disabilities. Jhoda was a cab driver when he got shot in an attempted robbery that left him quadriplegic.

“For four years I was not able to do a lot of the things for myself – my independence was more or less taken away from me,” he says.

All that changed when his local CIL, Self-Reliance, Inc., helped him get a wheelchair accessible van, a ramp into his home and an accessible bathroom.

“I know how much I have benefitted from the services that have been provided by the Center for Independent Living, and I know every cut that is made, how negatively it will impact,” Jhoda says.

Healthy State’s Sarah Pusateri spent time with Jhoda. Check out the video above.

Public radio. Public health. Public policy.