Families who have navigated the education world know how complex, confusing, and difficult it can be at times. As the protection and advocacy agency, we believe in the rights of all students, including students with disabilities, to access equitable and appropriate education alongside their peers.
In the fall of 2020, DRM, the Office of Public Instruction, and Montana’s Parent Training and Information Center, Montana Empowerment Center, came together with one shared mission: ensuring that all students with disabilities have the supports they need to succeed. These three agencies joined forces with the goal of creating collaborative supports for educators, administrators, and families in Montana.
The Coalition started based on the idea that collaboration is essential in using our limited resources in the most efficient way. We recognize that each agency plays a critical yet different role in the world of education. Identifying common interests and best practices between the three agencies and throughout the state will help bridge gaps within the education world and ultimately benefit Montana’s students. The Coalition is about collaboration at the state level through sharing information and ideas, sharing goals around specific areas, and understanding one another’s roles and responsibilities.
Similar collaborations across the nation have fostered close working relationships between State Education Agencies, Protection and Advocacy Agencies, and Parent Training and Information Centers. These collaborations have achieved positive outcomes sharing the same goal: improving outcomes for all children. As our Coalition effort has blossomed, we’re excited to share our first collaborative resource guide defining the roles and functions of each agency in an effort to make it easier for families. We look forward to continuing this work together.
Click the image below to download the resource guide.
Stephanie is an energetic young woman who wants to live a full life like everyone else in their mid-twenties. She met her DRM advocate in the fall of 2019 when she was living in a group home with seven other people, many of whom were considerably older than her and had support needs very different from Stephanie’s. Stephanie asked, “Will you be my advocate?” and explained that she wants to move to her own apartment, have a job in the community, and make friends her age. She explained that she needed an advocate because she felt her team was not listening to her and did not support her wishes.
Disability Rights Montana (DRM) receives the Protection & Advocacy for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities (PADD) grant that allows staff to advocate for the rights of Montanans with developmental disabilities. Some of those rights are getting to choose where a person wants to live as well as receiving services in the least restrictive environment, that is a setting allowing a person to live as fully integrated in a community as possible.
Based on Stephanie’s request, the DRM advocate started to attend Stephanie’s monthly team meetings in the fall of 2019 to advocate for Stephanie’s wishes and to ensure Stephanie’s voice was heard. Team members included a targeted case manager, community provider staff who had known and worked with Stephanie for the past 6 years, and a representative of DPHHS’ Developmental Disabilities Program (DDP). The DRM advocate’s role in this setting was to repeatedly urge the team members to evaluate every possible option for Stephanie to move to a less restrictive environment as well as to discuss how to address a potentially needed increase in Medicaid funding with DDP’s Regional Management.
Montana does not have enough community placements for people like Stephanie and DRM understands that it can feel like fighting windmills to find a more appropriate, less restrictive place to live for someone like Stephanie who already lived in the community. It is DRM’s role in those moments to remind everyone on the team that this is Stephanie’s life, that she is her own guardian, and that her wishes and decisions are the driver of the team process and its decision-making. She deserves to be heard and it is on her team to do everything possible to locate and secure the least restrictive environment in which Stephanie can thrive and reach her full potential.
After 1.5 years of attending monthly team meetings, assisting the team in evaluating potential provider options, encouraging all team members to continue the effort for Stephanie while not losing sight of the good work Stephanie’s current provider was doing, the team learned in December 2020 that a community service provider in Billings was hoping to have Stephanie join their services as soon as the referral process was finalized.
Stephanie moved from Missoula to Billings on March 1, 2021 on a beautiful, sunshine-filled Montana day. She is now living in a house with two housemates about her age and with similar support needs. Her new staff at Casey’s Dream assist her in getting to know Billings, finding new favorite places, and becoming more independent in her new apartment.
“I am so grateful for everything that Kathy and CAP-DRM has done for me. I am on my way to being a welder now.”
Disability Rights Montana (DRM) receives the Client Assistance Program (CAP) grant that allows staff to assist Montanans with disabilities navigate and advocate for their employment goals through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). Obtaining vocational rehabilitation services to regain or obtain employment is a critical support. In Christopher’s case, he wanted to be a full-time veterinarian, not have a part-time job.
Doctors detected a tumor in Christopher’s brain when he was merely 8 months old. Surgery resulted in compromised use of his foot and arm, learning disabilities, and cognitive issues – what can generally be called a traumatic brain injury (TBI). By the time he reached high school, Christopher had dreams and goals just like any other young person.
Christopher started with the State’s VR program when he was 16 years old in the Pre-Employment Transition Services program. When he first applied, his goal was to become a veterinarian, or a veterinarian technician. He wanted a career. VR instead helped Christopher obtain a part-time job working 5 hours a day.
Christopher, with college dreams still intact, also attended adult education classes to prepare for college entrance. However, the Adult Education instructor reported to VR that Christopher was not “college material” and they should just prepare him for a job. Christopher was devastated as he still wanted to experience college and be a veterinarian. VR did not offer tutoring or mentoring for him while he attended classes, even though they were fully aware of his learning and cognitive disabilities. Adult Education and VR directed Christopher away from college and instead of finding other means of helping him, they closed his case. The VR counselor told Christopher if he needed anything else from VR, he would need to re-apply and get on the waiting list. He reapplied three weeks later, because he wanted so much more out of life.
At the same time, this undaunted young man took it upon himself to work hard and pass the college entrance exams for the fall of 2020. He was admitted to college and began studying welding. Christopher loves welding, and he is good at it.
Christopher reached out to Tiffany Costa, a benefits counselor and told her about his experience with VR. Tiffany referred him to CAP at DRM. He contacted the CAP Advocate and asserted that VR had closed his case without reaching his goal of secondary education. The CAP Advocate investigated his claim and met with the Counselor Supervisor and VR Counselor. The CAP Advocate argued that the client had numerous disabilities and did not understand why his case was closed without meeting his work goal. She pointed out that no tutoring, mentoring, planning, or counseling had taken place on his behalf. She explained that Christopher’s goal was never to permanently work a part-time job, but to go to college and that his case was closed in error.
The CAP Advocate prevailed. VR reopened Christopher’s case and his case priority was upgraded from category 2 to 1. Christopher is receiving counseling services and full VR services including a tutor and mentoring. When next semester starts, Christopher will also receive college tuition to finish his welding program. He has the assistance of the Disability Services Office on campus and the CAP Advocate is monitoring his VR services.
People with disabilities, like Christopher, want meaningful work that allows them to take care of their family and themselves. They do not want to rely on limited government funding.
Each year hundreds of people apply for VR services to enable and support them to obtain meaningful employment. Everyone who applies for VR services is entitled to have an Advocate through DRM’s CAP program.
We invite you to support DRM with a tax-deductible donation, so we can continue to assist many more people like Christopher. To make a donation with a credit or debit card, please click the “Donate” link below to submit your gift electronically. If you would prefer to make a gift using a check, please mail it to our office at:
Disability Rights Montana
1022 Chestnut Street
Helena, MT 59601-0820