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Editorial: The Disabled

Toward a better life

New Jersey lawmakers should move ahead with a proposal to eliminate warehouse-style institutional care for the developmentally disabled and move them to community settings.

Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) wants New Jersey to follow in the footsteps of 10 other states that have placed people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and mental retardation in group homes or shared apartments rather than large, state-run facilities.

Under the proposal, introduced earlier this month, five of the seven developmental centers would be closed within five years. About 80 percent of the population, more than 2,000 people, would be relocated to community settings.

Supporters, including the group Disability Rights New Jersey, say the move is long overdue and will integrate the developmentally disabled into everyday life and give them a chance to live independently, make friends and work. In other words, a better life.

It also would save money, costing about $300 per day for community settings, compared with $614 per day in developmental centers. Overall, the developmental centers cost about $230,000 per person.

By focusing resources on community sites, Greenwald believes the new approach would help reduce a separate waiting list of nearly 8,000 developmentally disabled people living at home. Some have languished on the list for years, much to the angst of their parents, who worry about what will happen when they die or grow too old to care for their children.

Labor unions representing workers at the state institutions fear that the developmentally disabled may not get the same level of care. They argue that the state workers are better trained and provide more support services. The state must make sure there is adequate supervision and regulation to ensure that the disabled get the proper care.

It may also need to find more community slots to meet the demand. The proposal keeps open two centers to accommodate those unable to live independently in a community setting.

Critics also say the proposal limits the number of options for the disabled. But it actually offers a more attractive option for many who have spent most of their lives institutionalized and shut off from society. Currently, most of the nearly 40,000 developmentally disabled clients the state serves live in communities, not institutions.

Greenwald's proposal has the right intent and strikes the right balance. Lawmakers should move forward with the plan. The developmentally disabled deserve a chance to improve their quality of life.