Utah organizations for people with disabilities see need for financial improvement

Story and photos by DYLAN LIERD

Under the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Utah State Legislature authorized more than $215 million to assist people with disabilities in Utah. However, organizations like the Division of Services for People with Disabilities and TURN Community Services Inc. still cannot provide assistance for all.   

According to the DSPD’s website, it is the main source of assistance for Utahns with disabilities. The DSPD serves more than 4,000 individuals, and helps fund some of the more than 50 for profit and nonprofit organizations that provide assistance for people with disabilities.

According to a source in DSPD’s financial department who asked not to be identified, more than 1,900 citizens are still on DSPD’s waiting list. He said that for those who currently receive services, the $215 million is not enough to finance the needs of all Utahns with disabilities.  

“We have half as many people on the waiting list that we are able to serve,” said the source in a phone interview. “The limit of financial assistance was not created from the sequester or the federal government. The legislature appropriated what they could, but there is not enough tax dollars to fill all of the need.”

Consequently, DSPD must determine whether a person is eligible for assistance by evaluating the severity of an applicant’s disability. According to DSPD’s website, individuals who have an IQ of 70 or lower lack daily living skills, which impairs their ability to grapple with the demands of daily life. For that reason, they will receive assistance, or will be prioritized on the waiting list.

The same is true for those who have physical disabilities or brain injuries. Funding for physical disabilities is based on functional loss of limbs, and if the loss is for a continuous period. For brain injuries, the severity of the physical trauma or non-traumatic injury is used to justify the individual’s need to receive services. Preferences are not given to any disability, but priorities are given to applicants who have the most needs.

People who receive financial support are more often long-term recipients. Applicants on the waiting list can only receive financial assistance when there is an increased amount of legislative allotment, or if a recipient dies or moves out of the state.

Eliza Detherage gathers information concerning people with disabilities and TURN.

Eliza Detherage gathers information concerning people with disabilities and TURN.

Eliza Detherage, director of operations for TURN Community Services, said too many people are being turned away from receiving funding due to a lack of revenue.  

“Around 3 percent of the population have a disability in the United States,” Detherage said. “If the population of Utah is around 2 million, then 60,000 people have a disability in Utah, but only a few meet the requirements.”

TURN Community Services employs more than 475 full- and part-time workers, and provides supervised living and 24-hour group homes for people with disabilities. According to TURN’s website, the nonprofit provides summer camps for kids and helps people with disabilities find job opportunities from a variety of employers. A contract with DSPD largely funds TURN Community Services, and for 2013, its budget is more than $14 million. The budget provides financing for supported employment, day programs, respite care, host homes and other services.

According to a document posted on TURN’s website about the contractual agreement with DSPD, it must be an approved Medicaid provider to allow DSPD to bill Medicaid for TURN’s services. Detherage said Medicaid is an essential service for people with disabilities and for TURN. Included with Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and Social Security disability programs also help fund the costs of TURN’s programs. Detherage said less than 1 percent of TURN’s clients are on SSI or the disability programs. That means few receive additional funding.

“On a broad scale, when you look at people with disabilities, everything we receive is essential. Should there be more? Absolutely,” Detherage said. “I get about 10 calls a week from people that are absolutely desperate, but I know those people are not going to be eligible for services, and if they were eligible, they would just be sitting on the waiting list.”

Areas where TURN helps Utahns with disabilities.

Areas where TURN helps Utahns with disabilities.

Individuals on SSI receive $710 a month, an amount set by Utah law. Detherage said this is the only amount that many people with disabilities have. Therefore, because many people with disabilities cannot work, she said she believes the state legislature must appropriate more funding in order to shrink DSPD’s waiting list and allocate more to SSI beneficiaries.

Mike Bullson is a lawyer at Utah Legal Services. “The monthly benefit is limited, but the only way to receive greater amounts of funding is to allocate more money before being unable to work,” Bullson said in a phone interview. “This would help bring a lot of people out of poverty, but [it] is hard for disabled individuals to do.”

The source at DSPD said the amount of tax revenue the state receives does not allow the state legislature to allocate greater amounts of funding to Utahns with disabilities. Until legislators approve additional funding, organizations like DSPD and TURN Community Services must continue to work with their current funding. And that means many on DSPD’s waiting list will continue to remain there.