As a mom and a speech-and-language pathologist in Early Intervention in Massachusetts, I have never been so determined to plunge into the political arena as I have since Governor Patrick's administration proposed cutting millions of dollars from both the 2011 and 2012 Early Intervention budgets. But, as a rather shy person, I kept thinking, The governor doesn't know who I am, why would my voice matter? However, helping the children and families served by Early Intervention in Massachusetts was critically important, so I decided to jump into politics anyway. This is a story about what I learned, and I hope it will inspire others to join hands, take risks, and believe that you too can help paint rainbows of hope for those who need it the most.
Early Intervention in Massachusetts serves over 33,000 infants and toddlers from different ethnicities in a variety of settings including shelters, foster homes, childcare settings, apartments, and houses. It is a beautifully designed program in which a myriad of disciplines can work together in a natural environment (Ex. The child's home or childcare) to help families better understand and learn how to address their children's delays and disabilities. Not only does Early Intervention help families capitalize on brain plasticity, the brain's incredible ability to develop and build connections between different parts of the brain, it helps teach families how to provide numerous opportunities for children to learn how to move throughout their environment, pay attention to adult-directed sitting activities, play with other children, eat healthy foods, and understand and use words, signs, symbols, or augmentative communication devices to express their needs at home, childcare, and playgroup. This program also helps provide parents with opportunities to learn from other parents, and learn about opportunities for job training, low-cost housing, and reduced electricity and grocery bills.
Though it is estimated that Early Intervention saved the Commonwealth roughly $25 million in Special Education services in 2010, Governor Patrick's administration proposed to cut $8 million from Massachusetts' 2012 Early Intervention budget, as well as proposed changes that could have divided Early Intervention into two separate and unequal systems of care. The proposed cuts could have meant that as many as 6,000 children with developmental disabilities could have been cut from speech therapy and physical therapy. And, an additional 10,000 children could have faced gaps in vital coverage (Reinstein, 2011.)
Amidst the clouds of uncertainty surrounding 2011's high unemployment rates, the effects of the academic achievement gap, and the financial challenges facing every state, the families, staff, therapists, leaders, and supporters of Early Intervention joined forces to challenge the Patrick administration's proposed budget cuts and policy changes. In a coordinated effort, hundreds of people called and emailed their local legislative representatives to voice their support for Early Intervention. Over a thousand people signed petitions, shared their stories in letters with their children's photographs, and posted letters on a Facebook page specifically designed to oppose the budget cuts. Families and their children visited the governor, Senators, and House members, at the State House for the second annual Stroller-In to show their unwavering support for Early Intervention. And, in time, the Senate took the lead in turning the budget around. For the first time in Massachusetts history, the Senate Ways and Means Committee, issued a beautiful statement in support of Early Intervention (MSWM, 2011.) The House of Representatives agreed, and ultimately Governor Patrick approved the 2012 Early Intervention budget in full and did not make any changes that would restructure the Early Intervention system.
So, where does Dr. Edward Hallowell come into this picture? As I was in the midst of writing my letter to the governor last spring, I attended one of Dr. Hallowell's presentations as part of Wakefield's Parent Partnership lecture series. He talked about how despite his difficulties in learning to read, his teacher would take him under her wing every day and encourage him to try. And, he talked about his son who worked with his shop teacher to build a bird cage so big that it would only fit in their Suburban. He talked about the importance of dreaming, connecting with others, living in the moment, and encouraging others to reach for the stars.
And, finally, I knew what to do. I rewrote my letter and sent it to the governor, as well as to my representatives in the House and the Senate. I paid attention to each step in the budget process between March and June, and emailed and called my representatives as well as the governor's office when asked to do so. And, finally, I celebrated with joy when everyone's hard work was acknowledged and the budget was passed.
Teaching families how to help their children learn to communicate and connect, so that despite their learning challenges, they may have the tools to function appropriately in a classroom environment, learn to read, and respond to bullying (Paul, 1995; Gray, 2011), has taught me to believe that every child has the potential to succeed. Learning how to work together to teach our policy makers and governmental leaders about the critical role Early Intervention plays in teaching families how to make it in today's world has helped me understand the importance of building bridges between the supporters of Early Intervention and our policy makers whose budget decisions will ultimately shape the future of this invaluable program. Seeing how everyone's hard work and advocacy could indeed make a difference at the level of the governor, the Senate, and the House, to help preserve funding, and paint a rainbow of hope for those who need it the most, is truly one of the highlights of my career.
Sarah Roehrich, M.S., CCC-SLP
Thom Anne Sullivan Early Intervention Center
Gray, Carol (March, 2011). Presentation on Friendships, Bullying, & Students with ASD,16th Annual ASD Symposium 2011, Community Autism Resources, Cranston, RI.
Paul, R. (1995). Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby Book, Inc.
Reinstein, T. (2011). Cuts-achusetts, Making the Meekest Pay. The Boston Channel.com.
(MSWM, May, 2011.) Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Budget: Executive Summary,
Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Targeted Investments: Early Intervention.