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Must-read: Vocational rehab program could be on the state’s chopping block

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There’s a bill floating through both the House and the Senate that has raised nary an eyebrow, but could have some very real implications for people with disabilities in Florida.

The agency that runs the program isn’t speaking out about it. And organizations that support persons with disabilities have been lukewarm on the issue.

But one Tampa woman is trying to shine a light on a bill she sees as a potential dismantling of crucial disability benefits.

Faith Olivia Babis was born without arms. She’s spent her entire life perfecting the art of using her feet as hands and her legs as arms all the while still having to use them for their intended purposes as well.

In order for her to have similar mobility as a person without her particular disability, Babis needs two things. One, she needs a motorized wheelchair she can control with her toes because, as Babis puts it, you can’t do much with your arms when you’re walking on them. That wheel chair costs about ten grand and needs to be replaced every decade.

She also needs a car. But, without arms, it’s clear how this is a problem. So Babis rocks a nifty ride, equipped with $60,000 worth of modifications that allow her to accelerate, break and steer all through a joystick with her toes.

Babis works for a non-profit organization called the Florida Consumer Action Network as a community organizer. Those kinds of jobs don’t pay much and a $60,000 modification to a car is certainly not something that would be within her reach without the help of the Florida Division of Vocational Rehab.

They pay for her car’s modifications, which need upgrading every ten years. They also help pay for the portion of her wheelchair that her insurance doesn’t cover – about $2,000 or so.

“There’s something to be said for quality of life and independence and being able to go the store,” Babis said. “There are some things that I don’t want people to do for me.”

Babis lives in Tampa, but works in St. Pete. Depending on traffic her commute can take anywhere from a half-hour to more than an hour. If she were to rely on public transportation to get to and from work, that commute would eat up much of her day. Public transportation isn’t set up in this region to accommodate daily trips across the bay.

“If I lived some place like D.C., where there’s a metro, then maybe that would be feasible,” she said.

But she doesn’t live in D.C. or New York or anywhere else where pubic transportation is becoming more popular than driving a car. And she doesn’t plan to move there.

The bill she’s worried about is House Bill 1153 and Senate Bill 802. The bill sets benchmarks for the Vocational Rehab program. It would require the agency to implement a pilot program to meet new requirements and report back to the state with results.

Babis doesn’t have a problem with asking an agency to improve. On the contrary, she’d like it to get better.

“There are such long waiting lists,” Babis said of the agency.

The provision she’s worried about would potentially shut the entire program down.

“This section is repealed June 30, 2016, unless reenacted by the Legislature after review of the progress report on the achievement of the performance goals…,” the bill text reads.

So basically, the Legislature could deny reenactment if they feel the agency hasn’t reached the goals set forth in the bill. But the bill’s language would only remove the agency as a Department of Education “administrative unit.” If that happened, supporters say it wouldn’t shutter the program, rather move it to another department.

Republican supporters of the bill say its an issue the party is getting behind when they previously haven’t.

Some of those requirements are increasing the number and percentage of people who obtain employment through the program, increasing the number of people who receive postsecondary workforce education and who receive industry certifications and decrease the average cost per employment outcome. The bill would also require the agency to cut back on staff.

The bill’s sponsor in the Senate is Don Gaetz. He agreed the intention is not to cut the legs out from under the agency, but to make it more efficient.

“Right now Florida achieves fewer job placements for every million dollars spent than other large states,” he said.

And he said the legislation does not reduce funding.

“We want to make it more possible for more people who earn VR services to receive those certifications so they’re more employable,” Gaetz said.

But Babis argues the program is never going to be truly cost effective. The agency will never make money off of her. But that doesn’t mean the state isn’t receiving a return on investment and that’s what she hopes lawmakers will consider when debating this bill.

“These services allow me to work. If I didn’t have my car and my chair so I could function and work then I would be using programs such as SSI, Medicaid, Section 8 housing, and food stamps and would be paying nothing in taxes, which would cost the state far more over the course of my lifetime,” Babis said.

She gets repeatedly frustrated over people who treat her as broken. As a child, Babis described an entirely different school experience than most kids. She was put into special ed classes despite the fact that her disability was physical, not mental.

“There’s nothing wrong with my brain,” she said.

Babis had to take an IQ test just to attend regular academic classes.

As an adult, things didn’t get much better. She said the common recourse in many situations is for people to work minimum wage jobs or live on Social Security Income for people with disabilities.

That wasn’t good enough for Babis and she doesn’t think the state should take opportunities away from people like her who choose to thrive despite disability.

The bill passed the Senate Higher Education Committee unanimously and is now in the Appropriations Subcommittee. The House bill’s sponsor is Blaise Ingoglia. That version of the bill is now in the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee. Both bill sponsors are Republicans.

Florida’s Vocations Rehab agency said it’s their policy not to comment on pending legislation.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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