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State budget cuts threaten independent living programs

By Joe Ward/For CU-CitizenAccess/ It had been a long and tiresome day for Hadley Ravencroft, who spent the majority of her Tuesday, March 15 in Springfield protesting the round of budget cuts set to hit the human services sector if Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget goes unamended.

She got no sleep the night before and was in physical pain at the capital, where she and some 300 others told politicians that their ability to get to Springfield with relative independence would be jeopardized if the sweeping budget cuts pass the General Assembly as they are supposed to.

Ravencroft has suffered the effects of cerebral palsy since she was born. The disease is non-progressive, meaning her condition should not have worsened since she was diagnosed.

But Ravencroft, 41 of unincorporated Urbana, has recently and inexplicably lost functionality in her right arm, and her legs shake and sometimes give out, causing her to sporadically and forcefully crash to the floor.

For this and other reasons, Ravencroft requires a personal assistant in order to live a fruitful and independent life.

“I have spent many hours in one position, sobbing, because I can’t move,” Ravencroft said. “Or [I] throw myself out of the chair to get somewhere, and I’ve broken toes and bruised myself. Personal assistants allow for independence where my body does not.”

But with a round of state budget cuts set to take effect July 1, 2011, Ravencroft’s ability to own and maintain her own home may be in serious jeopardy.

“Most people don’t see my decreased mobility,” she said. “They see me at 8:00 a.m., but they don’t see my at 6:00 p.m. Legislators... don’t get how you can look a particular way, and looking a particular way does not [indicate] level of availability.

"Without a personal assistant, I’d be in a nursing home, as would so many others.”

The personal assistant program is funded by various grants and pools of state money, all of which stand to shrink due to budget cuts.

For example, home services funding will switch to a Medicaid only system, and fund recipients cannot have any assets, meaning they cannot have a job or a home. Some politicians have called for a $2 million reallocation of general revenue funds from personal assistants programs into higher education. Lastly, Quinn’s budget calls for a 50 percent decrease in community reintegration programs, which help finance a person’s transition into independent living.

 Dave Lowitzki, policy advisor for an Illinois personal assistants union, said about 10 to 15 people a month could not access the program if it switches over to Medicaid only, and that people would be forced to pay money out of their pocket for an assistant.

“They’ll have to spend out all their assets and essentially be condemned to a life of poverty to live on their own,” Lowitzki said.

Although she is able to walk some distances, Ravencroft requires a wheelchair for mobility at the offices of PACE, where she is the personal assistant coordinator of the independent living advocacy agency. Ravencroft, however, must leave her electric chair at the office because the house she owns in unincorporated Urbana does not have a wheelchair ramp.

For years, Ravencroft has fought for state funding to build a ramp, but the state is so behind on payments to contractors who build ramps on the state’s dime, that contractors no longer accept state-funded jobs.

Never mind the fact that if she were to successfully get a ramp at her home, she would be unable to transport the bulky chair from work to home, as it would not fit in her two-door Ford Focus. A van with a lift would cost $18,000, Ravencroft estimates, and funding is not available for that either.

“Me not having the ramp is not the issue,” Ravencroft said. “It’s a mom of four who doesn’t have the resources. How can she take care of her children, let alone get in and out of her house?”

And so Yolanda Martin meets Ravencroft at her office, which is only less than a block from Martin’s apartment. That is convenient for Martin, whose only mode of transportation is bus, since her personal assistant’s paycheck does not constitute a living wage. 

Martin shows up at the end of the work day, just in time to help Ravencroft out of her electric chair and into her arm supports that keep her body in an upright position. Ravencroft uses one arm brace and Martin holds her other arm, and together the two inch their way down the halls of PACE, out the front door and into the parking lot, at which point Martin gingerly assists Ravencroft into the drivers seat of her Focus.

Martin grew up on the West Side of Chicago, in a home with a woman who could not take care of herself. Since her teenage years, Martin cared for the woman who sheltered her, whether it was cleaning, cooking, or bathing her.

At 50, Martin quit her job at Macy’s and became a personal assistant, where she now makes $11.20 an hour and can only work with Ravencroft for 7.5 hours a week because of government regulations that restrict how many hours a week a person can have an assistant on the government’s dime.

Martin joined SEIU local 880, a labor union for personal assistants. She said the union, now called SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, used to benefit her, before they took away the option to buy into a healthcare program.

“I got insurance, but now I don’t,” Martin said. “If you don’t get 30 hours a week, you can no longer buy into health insurance.”

The only way the state would allow Martin to work for Ravencroft 30 hours a week is if Ravencroft’s condition denigrated to the point where she could no longer be employable. Martin said she is on the waiting list to become another person’s assistant, but hasn’t received any calls.

“I have cataracts, so my vision is bad, and I can’t get insurance because of my pre-existing condition,” Martin said. “If I want to have cataract surgery, I’d have to come up with $5,000 on my own.”

Martin said she substitute teaches at Champaign schools, but is rarely called to work, meaning her 7-and-a-half hours with Ravencroft at $11.20 an hour is what she has to get by on.

Though union membership is mandatory for all personal assistants, there are some, like Sydney Mitchell, who have never heard of such a union.

Mitchell is a University of Illinois student who is employed by her boyfriend’s relative, also a U. of I. student. After four years on the job, Mitchell makes $11.45 an hour, a slight bit more than what union member Martin earns.

Neither Mitchell not Martin nor all the assistants in the state are certified, because such a standardized certification program does not exist. Ravencroft said PACE does hold classes, but only the basics like respect and communication skills are touched upon.

Lowitzki said there is not certification process due to the issue of consumer freedom.

 “The disability movement cares greatly about being able to chose who is in their home with them,” Lowitzki said. He said that consumers have the ability to run a background check on a potential employee if they so chose.

Most of the training for assistants comes on the job, Ravencroft said.

“She [Martin] can look at my eyeballs and know if I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. “Personal assistants know weird things like that. It comes from working together for four years, you just know.”

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.