Thompsons fight for DARS funding

Caleb Thompson might have some physical and neurological limitations, but in his 16 years of life, Caleb and the Thompson family have made a strong, statewide impact to improve the lives of the blind and deaf community.Caleb is blind, deaf and lives his life as a quadriplegic. At the age of three, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and brain damage came as a result of the treatment. However, age knows no limits in the Thompson family, as Caleb has been going before the legislature in Austin since he was 5.In years past, the family met Governor Rick Perry in Austin as they lobbied in favor of deaf and blind educators. They have also met Representative Susan King and were able to get two bills read and passed through King's efforts. The initial meeting between Caleb's father, Wayne Thompson, and Representative King was at a past public forum in Abilene.But beyond the political aspect, Wayne has been involved in DBMAT (Deaf-Blind Multihandicapped Association of Texas), a support group that has been in existence for almost 40 years. Medical professionals, caregivers, parents and family members benefit from the non-profit organization, and until last year, Wayne served as Vice President for four years.Recently, the state program DARS (The Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services) Division for Blind Services is one of many programs on the chopping block in light of budget cuts. According to its website, the program "assists blind or visually impaired individuals and their families...and offers services to help regain independence or find a job"... DARS has been of great assistance to the Thompson family, namely Caleb, for the past 14 years. They offer an outreach program that works with schools specifically for the blind and helps purchase technology and other tools for the blind and deaf. DARS also allows individuals to stay at home rather than being placed in a health care facility as they get older.And while those who are blind and deaf benefit from DARS, the small state program also offers education to the parents as well. They can access programs for their use and assist in future planning and working with school districts.Furthermore, DARS holds workshops and camps for children who are deaf and blind and even their siblings. Five regions consisting of cities like Lubbock, Wichita Falls, Abilene, Amarillo, Midland and Odessa have such events, among others in the state doing so. This collection of communities, known as a cluster group, come together to make money go further for top notch speakers and activities, something that is unique to the area.Right now, a house bill presented by a Fort Worth representative--if passed--would consolidate DARS with the larger state program DADS (Department of Aging and Disability Services), which "administer[s] long-term services and supports for people who are aging and who have cognitive and physical disabilities."The consolidation, according to Wayne, would make the DARS program "very miniscule". Through his talks with various former bureaucrats, the blind children's program would virtually disappear in a year's time.The other option being presented would be to not consolidate, but cut the funding on the children's division within the DARS program by 30%, equating $1.5 million. Wayne stated that such a move would set back the program by three or four years and even noted that DARS hasn't been given additional funds in the past decade. And as a result of the already meager funding, case managers within DARS are usually shorted and their workload is almost tripled. Currently, DARS helps around 700 kids, according to the recent Census, who are deaf and blind. And while that equates to just .025% of the state population, according to a recent statistic, the funding has to be stretched throughout the entire year.One bill which has already been passed due in part to the Thompsons' efforts is a waiver for the deaf and the blind which now sets the age limit for assistance to begin at the age of impairment, in contrast to the previous setting for assistance to start at age 18. Another passed bill now allows for each child in Texas who is both deaf and blind to have an "intervener", an educated worker who is trained to teach the children. Both bills were passed in the previous session. While both DARS and DADS assist those in need, Wayne believes the DADS program only administers and has no hands-on contact with its participants. Through his experience, Wayne knows that through one-on-one interaction, blind and deaf children can be just as successful as their peers. He strongly believes that DARS has provided the direction that Caleb needs, yet he also feels that whatever decision is made, he won't agree with either of them.In February of this year, Wayne's oldest daughter, 17-year-old Dugan, testified under a three-and-a-half minute time limit with Caleb before the Texas Appropriation Subcommittee against the 30% budget cut. "When he's there," stated Wayne, "they pay attention." He recalled Dugan's participation in helping with Caleb since she was eight years old and also mentioned that Dugan helps the family by choice. Her entire life has been dramatically affected, and Dugan intends to head to Angelo State University after graduating this May to become a pediatric therapist. Dugan also works at the summer camps to help children like her brother Caleb. Along with Dugan's efforts, her 14-year-old brother Kevin takes part as well through his assistance on the Internet. Wayne's wife Diedra is the Regional Coordinator for DBMAT, definitely making this a family affair.Wayne feels that his family can give back to the deaf and blind community because of all the resources and assistance given to Caleb and other children like him. He even recounted one instance of support from the media who were so captivated after hearing Caleb's testimony before the legislature. After being just the sixth person to testify out of 80, the media outlets left to report on Caleb's story.And because of Caleb's testimony and the tireless efforts of the family, the Thompsons have been given recognition. In 2008, Caleb personally received honors for his testimony. On April 1, 2011 at a family conference workshop headed up by DARS in Lubbock, the Thompsons were recognized for "showing outstanding advocacy for blind and visually impaired people and their families". In addition, Wayne has personally received an award for his hard work. This year at a recent convention in Dallas, Wayne was named the "2011 Outstanding Parent of the Year" by the Texas Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Not only was Wayne caught off guard by the honor, but at the time, he didn't know the organization existed.However, Wayne's reasoning for informing the community about Caleb and the family's efforts isn't about the awards--it's about continually bring awareness to the public. He also wants to inform and even mentor local parents, especially those who can relate. Wayne stresses that since the legislative session has not ended, it's not too late to contact local representatives and the legislature. "They make a difference, and it does count," said Wayne, urging citizens to call, e-mail and even make personal contact to their representative to support the DARS progam, especially those who are impacted.A day after the interview with the Thompsons for this article, the Senate Finance Committee "restored nearly all DARS programs to current funding levels and restored 20 staff positions in the Blind Children's Program", proof that progress is being made as a result of the testimonies from the Thompsons, other families like them in the state, parents and various support groups. Several other funding issues are still up in the air, including financing for the ECI and Autism programs. Talks have continued on the possible consolidation but in some cases have been cancelled. But as the session winds down, the topic is likely to be suspended until next year. However, Wayne feels that should the issues continue in the right direction, "a good investment in the future" would be made.But at the end of the day, Wayne is quick to give the credit to others. He praises the SISD for the excellent cooperation shown not only to Caleb and the Thompsons, but similar families as well within the school district. He also extends the recognition right back to his entire family, and especially Caleb.With a smile on his face, Wayne shows his appreciation to his son: "He's my hero."