COLUMBUS, Ohio – The clock is ticking on Ohio sheltered workshop and adult day programs serving 24,000 people with developmental disabilities.

For more than 50 years, workshops throughout the state have served as a sort of haven where people with disabilities learn job skills, earn money and spend time with friends. But officials with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services say the programs are too “segregated” and must be revamped. The deadline is 2019, although that might be extended.

Federal officials want services for people with developmental disabilities such as the sheltered workshop and adult day programs to be more “inclusive” and open to the community rather than sheltered. They hold the trump card because the federal government pays 60 percent of the cost of services, with the state and local agencies covering the rest. Services cost more than $2 billion over the past three years.

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The original inclusiveness order went out in 2014, and although the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities lobbied for an extension, it was told recently that it must show progress over the next three years.

One of those directly affected will be Judy Smith of Cincinnati, whose brother, Joey Fritsch, 46, has gone to the Robert W. Franks Adult Center workshop in that city his entire adult life. He is picked up and dropped off at home each weekday.

“That’s all he’s known,” Smith said. “He doesn’t make much money, but it’s a routine, and he feels safe.”

Smith said her brother and many others will be unable to function in jobs in the community.

“He wouldn’t know what to do,” she said. “He’d be in a situation where he could get hurt.”

Smith, who is her brother’s guardian, is angry about the coming changes, although she acknowledges that she doesn’t know specifics.

“He’ll be back sitting at home. In my opinion, they’re putting him back in the closet.”

If that happens, “we’ve failed,” said John Martin, director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities.

Martin does not intend to fail. He said his agency plans gradual, steady changes in the workshop system and has told federal officials it will work toward, but will not meet, the 2019 deadline.

“It doesn’t mean the workshops are going to close. You can’t just turn a switch, because this is about people,” Martin said. “We know it may sound scary, but we hope it’s going to be baby steps.”

Gary Tonks, executive director of Arc of Ohio said clients receiving services and their families are understandably fearful about the changes.

“What troubles us is, no one really knows what’s segregation and what’s inclusion. People want to know, ‘How much access do I have to the same daily routine that people without disabilities have?'”

“This is what we’ve asked for. We said we wanted jobs for our loved ones. We wanted jobs in their pockets. It took decades for the feds to hear about it.”

The state is nudging county developmental disabilities boards along with $1.5 million in grants for pilot projects to move toward inclusion in workshops.

Jed Morrison, superintendent of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said his agency is getting $192,000 to “give us a road map for how we can move more toward integrated services so this isn’t so abrupt a change. I don’t think the workshops are going to go away, but we need more inclusive opportunities to help people to achieve their potential.”

Franklin County has 855 people in three workshops and 910 in community-based employment programs, Morrison said.

Will the changes improves services for Ohioans with disabilities?

“Time will tell,” Morrison said. “We have not been in favor of some of these changes.”

Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, director of advocacy for Disability Rights Ohio, said changes proposed by the federal government are a “a good thing. Offering more options is the whole purpose behind the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s important to remember that neither the state nor the county boards should use these rules as an excuse to terminate services.”

Sandy Henkel’s son, Paul, also attends the Franks workshop in Cincinnati. He tried other jobs but didn’t like them.

If the workshop goes away, “I would be very upset,” Sandy Henkel said. She has written to Gov. John Kasich, President Barack Obama and others but received no responses.

“It feels like we’re starting all over again,” she said. “We’ve come so far.”

© 2016 The Columbus Dispatch
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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