Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 11, 2004

ATHC stresses ability, not disability

By Jane Otto

It’s a relaxed and cheerful work pace that exists within the confines of Winsted’s Adult Training and Habilitation Center.

Amid laughter and mutual jibes, job coach Patti Weibel showed Larry and Carol, both adults with developmental disabilities, the task at hand. The two adults, along with several others in the room, meticulously boxed bags of tape products.

For 25 years, the nonprofit ATHC has employed adults with developmental disabilities to do in-house and on-site work for area businesses. The habilitation center ensures the adults and the job are well-suited.

Each week, those adults go home with a paycheck and a sense of self-worth, ATHC director Steve Wilson said. “There’s a number of people who have no idea what we do here,” he added.

Now, in the midst of October, also designated as developmental disabilities awareness month, Wilson wants people not so much to understand what ATHC and similar centers do, but rather see these adults as “people first.”

“I’m always working hard to break down stereotypes,” he said. “The main thing is I want people to look at the ability of a person, rather than the disability.”

Working at the center for more than 20 years, Weibel has done just that. “To me, they’re part of my family,” she said. “It’s fun to watch them grow and change.”

Weibel enjoys sharing the excitement these adults have after successfully completely a job. “It’s the pride they feel, just like anyone else,” she said.

Looking back 20 years, Weibel said, “I went to school to be a teacher’s aide. I tried this for a while and fell in love with it.”

Minnesota has roughly 240 programs similar to ATHC. With centers in Winsted and Hutchinson, ATHC serves more than 90 adults from as far north as Buffalo and Darwin, and as far east as Waconia and Excelsior.

Many of the people employed through these programs would have been institutionalized years ago, Wilson said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way.”

Of the 239 state programs, ATHC is the 19th largest. Most of the center’s funding is primarily through the adults’ medical assistance and the state, with a small portion coming from county dollars, grants and fund-raising. A nonprofit day training and habilitation center, ATHC receives a set per diem for each person it serves. Like schools, if the center is closed due to bad weather, no money comes in for that day.

Stagnant funding levels the past two years combined with rising expenses have made the center do more with less, Wilson said. “We’ve never had to cut employee wages or benefits or programs, but we’ve got to be very creative in budgeting.”

What frightens Wilson about the state’s funding is the thinking behind it. “We’re slipping back to an institutionalized-type thinking, rather than an individualized-type thinking,” he said. “We’re deciding what will happen for Joe, rather than Joe having a say. It’s what we think is right rather than what’s right for Joe.”

That pertains particularly to those adults who aren’t eligible for medical assistance waiver dollars. “They can’t financially pay for programs like ours,” Wilson said. “People are being told we have nothing for you.”

The funding piece can sometimes be confusing for Charlotte Knick, a Brownton woman who serves on the ATHC board and also has a 25-year-old working at the center. New programs get a higher daily stipend than existing programs, she said.

The medical waiver amount has decreased, too, Knick added. About four years ago, her son’s waiver amount was $240 a month. That amount has decreased to $60 a month. “I’m anticipating that will go away, too,” she said.

By cutting funding to programs like ATHC, then, these adults are not out in the public learning new skills, Knick said.

“I’d hate to see that happen,” she said. “They take pride in doing work and getting that paycheck, even if it is small.”

It’s all about educating legislators, Wilson said. “Out of sight, out of mind. If they don’t have someone with a disability, they have no clue.”

Despite a tight pocketbook, ATHC continues to serve adults with developmental disabilities, giving them an opportunity to be productive citizens. They live in the community, doing many of the same things as other adults, Wilson said. “They want to feel good about themselves.”

A poster hangs on the wall of the Winsted center. It reads: Originality — Celebrate what makes you different. Be yourself and respect the uniqueness of others.

It’s a fitting message for National Developmentally Disabilities Awareness Month, one that Wilson wants to impart to the public.

“It’s so much about education,” Wilson said. “It’s about treating them as normal. They don’t want sympathy. It gives them no useful purpose. They just want respect like everybody else.”

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