Guest Series: Jim Whittaker

February 9, 2012 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville consistently offers the opportunity for our readers to absorb the editorials, personal accounts, and vocal opinions of some of the key players in the decision making process of our community. This week,, The Arc Jacksonville Executive Director Jim Whittaker explains the importance of community-based services for Floridians with disabilities. Join us after the jump for his perspective!

The genesis of The Arc Jacksonville can be traced to the single, profound belief that everyone, regardless of personal circumstances, should share in the benefits of an inclusive community life.  The organization’s history, played out against a backdrop of evolving community attitudes, reveals the evolving application of that belief in the establishment of city and state services that open doors of community life for our citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  It is a history, still unfolding, of which we are very proud.

We, as humans, have always struggled to understand and cope with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  We’ve seen them as signs of God’s displeasure, as causes of shame.  We’ve relegated them to unseen places and abhorrent conditions.  Those unseen places were called institutions.  They were often cruel places, where de-humanizing conditions and abuse were far too common.

Although less well known than the civil rights movement that addressed great social inequalities in American society, the movement for humane rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities has had a profound effect on our social fabric.  In just four decades, a social norm that included bleak institutions, isolation, and denial of education for those born with disabilities has been shattered.  The outlook today has been transformed into one of community inclusion and access to the same education, healthcare, legal protections, and housing opportunities as other citizens.  It is a movement that has brought hope where none had existed for those challenged with a body or mind less capable than most.

In 1981, President Ronald Regan extended access to Medicaid funding for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities by creating a waiver whereby states could receive federal support for providing service to these citizens through community-based agencies.  Eighteen years later, the Olmstead Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that federal mandate, promising individuals with disabilities that they would receive services within the community “in the most integrated setting appropriate,” according to the Center for An Accessible Society. Today, thanks to President Regan, all fifty states participate in the Medicaid Waiver initiative.  In Florida, as in many other states, adults challenged with disabilities receive employment training, life-skills education and other services at community-based agencies rather than custodial care at remote institutions.

In terms of quality, the education and services individuals with disabilities receive today are by all standards an enormous success.  And they still cost significantly less than the institutional alternative, according to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.  The 2012 Florida budget estimates the annual cost to institutionalize a person with a disability between $120,000 and $150,000 per individual, yet services from community-based organizations averages to only $29,000 annually per individual.

But now, the commitment to community-based services has been shaken.  The economy has taken its toll.  Services for people with disabilities have suffered reductions in government funding along with many other human service programs.  In the state of Florida, the budget for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities is actually smaller than it was in 2005.  And while funding for community services under the Medicaid Waiver has decreased, the list of people with disabilities waiting for those promised services has ballooned to more than 20,000 people.

Florida now ranks 49th among the 50 states in funding levels for people with disabilities, yet Florida is the fourth most populous state in the nation.  Florida also ranks third among states in percent of population age five and above who have a disability.  For every $1,000 of personal income enjoyed by Floridians, a scant $2.14 is devoted to services for the intellectually and developmentally disabled.  That compares with New York’s $9.53 or Louisiana’s $7.43 per $1,000 of income.  All 48 states that rank above us have economic crises as well, but this is not just a matter of economics, it’s a matter of values.

The impact on these dwindling revenues cannot be overstated.  The Arc Jacksonville remains committed to exploring innovative approaches that are intended to supplement government support through new community partnerships.  While the role of government continues to evolve, critical funding must continue.  The Governor and the Florida Legislature are now developing policies and a budget for the next fiscal year.  Governor Scott and the Florida Legislature are faced with an immediate opportunity to continue the work of President Regan and previous legislatures in the promise of quality, communitybased services for Floridians with disabilities.

It’s a promise we need to keep

Guest Article by Jim Whittaker

Jim Whittaker is Executive Director of The Arc Jacksonville, a position he has held since 1999, and is also Executive Director of The Arc of Putnam County in Palatka, Florida, having also served in that role for the past 24 years. The Arc Jacksonville and The Arc of Putnam County arenot-for-profit organizations providing services, supports and advocacy to hundreds of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout northeast Florida.

Whittaker’s commitment to the population with special needs is a heritage from his mother who worked with those institutionalized for mental retardation and other disorders.  Whittaker’s childhood experiences revealed the abilities of those whom society had labeled “different” and prompted his decision to pursue a career dedicated to opening possibilities for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Whittaker holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida in special education and later pursued graduate work in administration at Florida Atlantic University.  Whittaker is actively involved with local, state and national organizations that focus on disability issues, including The Arc of Florida, The Arc of the United States, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and RESPECT of Florida. He has been recognized with several awards including local Arc of the Year and local Business Leadership Achievement.