Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
A large crowd turned out Tuesday night for the Conversations that Matter forum at First Christian Church, held by All About Developmental Disabilities (AADD).
“It's a facilitated large group discussion,” said director of public policy and education Rita Young.
Over 55 years old, AADD is an organization whose mission is to create lifelong support, education and opportunities for children, adults and families living with developmental disabilities. AADD is a provider of support services, advocacy and training.
The organization holds community forums to provide networking opportunities, resources and create ongoing conversations about post-secondary options for the developmentally disabled.
This year, AADD traveled to Valdosta, Kennesaw, Statesboro, Macon and Gainesville.
"We want to connect families with resources," said Young.
Conversations about options for the developmentally disabled have become increasingly more crucial over the past few years because of cuts to federal and state funding to programs that champion on behalf of individuals with disabilities ranging from high-functioning Aspergers to Down Syndrome.
"We've been asked to cut our budget by 3 percent," said the deputy assistant commissioner for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) Dave Blanchard.
For the 2013-2014 year, DBHDD will be cutting their budget and by 2014, those cuts will begin to impact services tremendously.
"We have some challenges," said Blanchard.
Georgia has come a long way way from leading the country in providing services for the developmentally disabled from 2003 to 2008. Now, while Georgia is not placed last as far as services are concerned, they are far down the chain and currently, only have one post-secondary institution, Kennesaw State University, that provides options after high school.
While Kennesaw State only accepts 16 developmentally disabled students per year, that's not a lot in comparison to the unemployment rate among the developmentally disabled in the area that sits between 80 to 92 percent. In Valdosta alone, the unemployment rate for those without disabilities is only 14 percent.
In South Carolina, there are five post-secondary programs that serve 50 developmentally disabled students and of those 50, ten of them are from Georgia.
In 2010 in Georgia, more than 1,400 students with developmental disabilities exited the school systems. Forty five percent of those students graduated with no post-secondary option.
"There are folks around the state who want to change that," said Young.
With a room full of parents, advocates, education officials, politicians, state legislators and local dignitaries, Conversations that Matter centered around brainstorming how to solve the life after high school crisis.
Young had the chairs in the room organized by the world cafe method — a design of half circles spread throughout the room — which aims to provide an open and creative conversation on a topic of mutual interests to surface a collective knowledge, share ideas and insights, and gain a deeper understanding of the subject and the issues involved.
Participants moved to various groups throughout the night and were asked to explain their personal situations, talk about what they would like to see as far as post-secondary options and how to possibly make those suggestions into a reality.
"We have to build a network in our community," said Young.
Christian Bush from Waycross has a son with Aspergers, a high-functioning form of Autism.
"He is 19 years old and is a sophomore in college," said Bush.
Right now, Bush's son is in a two year school and while he functions highly academically, he struggles with the day to day social aspects of college living. Right now, Bush's concern is what to do when it comes time to transfer her son to a four-year college.
Kathy Stove from Fitzgerald has a 27 year old son with Sotos Syndrome, a disorder characterized by a distinctive facial appearance and an intellectual impairment that is usually accompanied with behavioral problems.
"I'm desperately searching for some education for my child," said Stove.
Because of her son's age, Stove would like there to be more group living options for those with development disabilities in Georgia.
While there are some group living facilities in Florida, some can cost as much as $80,000 to $90,000 per year.
Connie Sealy from Macon was interested in seeking more post-secondary options. Sealy's 18-year-old daughter is a freshmen at Kennesaw State but would like to see more opportunities available for the developmentally disabled.
"The general population doesn't know what the parent of a child with disabilities goes through," said Sealy.
The big message Tuesday was that every voice and every advocate counts and when it comes to tackling the issues surrounding the developmentally disabled, it starts with just one person who is willing to not take no for an answer.
"Never underestimate your ability to make change," said Blanchard. "Especially at the local level."
For more information on AADD, visit www.aadd.org.