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By Director of Assistive Technology for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services Karen Langley

There is an old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  When the child has a disability, it can take the involvement of many state agencies to make a real difference in that child’s life.

When Mary Doherty, a social worker at the Department of Children and Families (DCF), first learned of Joe* it was in her capacity assessing the health and safety of homeless children. Joe and his mother had recently moved to Massachusetts (where Joe’s mother has family ties) from Georgia and were homeless. What makes Joe different from most other homeless children is that he has cerebral palsy and he cannot walk. At age 5, Joe had outgrown his wheelchair, and his family’s application in Georgia for a new one had been delayed.  Joe’s mother moved north without the wheelchair, forcing her to carry Joe everywhere.

Mary’s first inclination was to call me. I am the Director of Assistive Technology and Community Support programs within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Mary called to seek help getting Joe’s Medicaid benefits transferred from Georgia, find him a donated wheelchair and locate accessible housing for Joe and his family.  My experience with assistive technology and housing in Massachusetts has afforded me with directly applicable knowledge of what programs and staff were available to first tackle the task of finding Joe a wheelchair.  I immediately contacted programs that I knew supported wheelchair recycling programs at two independent living centers.  Tom Filiault, from the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Western Massachusetts, responded right away that he had two pediatric wheelchairs.  Pictures of the wheelchairs were forwarded to Joe’s mother, and she selected one.  The next question was: How to transfer the wheelchair from Amherst to Lynn where Joe was living with his mother in a second floor, inaccessible apartment?  It took a few days to coordinate, but Tom drove to Worcester and delivered the chair to me; I drove it to Boston and delivered it Mary at DCF. Mary brought it to Joe. 

Mary said both Joe and his mother were thrilled with the wheelchair; Joe got in it right away and began pushing himself around. “It was wonderful to see the smile on his face and now he can go to school,” said Joe’s mom. The only problem was that the leg rests were not adjusted to his height and Joe’s mother couldn’t figure out how to change them.  Mary again called me for help.  I reached out to Tom Mercier, director of the Department of Developmental Services’ Kelley Assistive Technology Center in Danvers, to ask for his help.  Tom arranged to stop by Joe’s apartment on his way home from work.  He was able to quickly adjust the leg rests and show Joe’s mom how she could do it on her own and as her son grows. He also informed her how to go about getting a new wheelchair when Joe needs it.

With the first task done, the next challenge was to find accessible housing for Joe and his mom.  Mary indicated that the family was eligible for a voucher under the Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) new Home Base Program.  What was needed was to find a wheelchair-accessible, two-bedroom unit in Lynn where Joe and his mom have a support network. 

Using the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission-funded, online Mass Access Housing Registry, operated by Citizen’s Housing and Planning Associates, I found a two-bedroom, wheelchair accessible unit in Ipswich; I passed the information on to Mary. At the same time, Mary and I had each contacted staff at the Lynn Housing and Neighborhood Development (LHAND) to let them know about the need for an accessible unit for this family. LHAND was able to find an accessible unit that Joe’s mom chose;  Joe and his family are due to move in any day!

Throughout the process, MassHealth resolved the issue of Joe’s eligibility for a new wheelchair, thanks to the collective efforts of DCF and MassHealth staff.

It took a “village” of state agency staff – from the Department of Housing and Community Development, to the Department of Children and Families, to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to the Department of Developmental Services and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission to help Joe get his wheelchair, find his family accessible housing and obtain Joe’s MassHealth benefits, which enable him to attend school and begin a better life in Massachusetts.

Joe’s story is a wonderful example of cross-agency collaboration to help meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents.  I am very proud of the team effort and of the dedicated staff who came together to create a village, prioritize Joe’s needs, deliver solutions and give Joe and his family tremendous support. My kudos and thanks to everyone who made this collaboration possible.

*Consumer name has been changed

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