MISSOULA – Independent living for people living with disabilities is becoming continuously difficult due to legislative action that reduced the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) budgets in 2017.
Cooking, cleaning, getting to appointments are among the basic items that can be huge barriers for people living with disabilities. The hours provided by DPHHS helped with chores like these while also promoting inclusion into the community.
It’s only making life more difficult for people such as Mitchell McCabe, 35, who lives independently in Missoula thanks to services to support his life with quadriplegia.
“It makes me equal to be able to live in my community, I become just as important as someone walking next to me whose helping me,” McCabe said.
“Because I’m contributing to my community by furthering my education, trying to find work, trying to help other people with disabilities be independent and see that they have a future,” he added. “That is why I want to continue to live independently and fight against the budget cuts that are happening,” he said.
McCabe fell asleep while driving down a Montana roadway in 1998 and wrecked his vehicle at the age of 15. He then began his journey as an artist when he was in high school. He said uses his art to take a break from reality, and is exploring ways it may bring in an income in the future.
“I found art as a way to relate with my peers and stand out a little bit and show people that I’m still able and capable of progressing in life,” McCabe said.
He was able to get a bachelor’s degree at the University of Montana because of the service hours he used to have, which included support getting to campus.
McCabe wants to pursue a master’s degree in counseling but isn’t sure if that is possible now. He used to have 11 hours of help per week but and due to cuts, he now has eight — a reduction that he says this makes a big difference in his life.
“I’m trying to get my Master’s, but if I don’t have the hours to get to school, only have the hours to get up. I have to rely on friends or people to help me out. I don’t really have that many people that can, because other people have work, have jobs,” he said.
McCabe says his art, schooling and time spent supporting others is possible because he lives independently in the community, not an institution.
DPHHS Medicaid and Health Services branch manager Marie Matthews told MTN News that the department has not seen a drastic increase in institutionalization since the 2017 legislative action to cut community-based services in Montana.
“In the short term — while we are very concerned with impacts in the local community — we aren’t seeing the mass shift that there is fear for,” Matthews said.
Disability rights advocates are not confident this trend will last, and other agencies that work with facilities like the state mental hospital are saying that they are seeing spiking numbers of people living with disabilities being sent into higher levels of care.
“We have not seen the worst of even the results of the cuts yet, to say nothing of seeing how long people can do it without having critical services. And people are very stubborn. They’re going to try as long as they possibly can, but it’s not going to be good when it happens,” said Disability Rights Montana attorney Beth Brennaman.
DPHHS officials have not responded to requests by MTN News for the actual data on current rates of institutionalization into state facilities.
The state plans to restore about $30 million of the cuts to DPHHS thanks to an improving economic climate, but it’s not clear yet which programs are priorities or will be restored, according to Heather O’Loughlin, Montana Budget and Policy Center director.
An outline of where the money will go is expected to be released on September 1st.
Reporting by Augusta McDonnell for MTN News