BALTIMORE – Every morning for more than a year, Joe Brown has made the 45-minute, multi-bus commute to The Arc of Baltimore headquarters where he is the friendly office clerk responsible for all mail operations. Brown is mentally disabled.
Brown, 22, is just one of The Arc’s many success stories. Beyond being the first service provider for disabled children and adults in Maryland, and one of the largest in the country, The Arc, now celebrating its 60th year, has revolutionized what it means to be disabled through its many programs and services.
In 1949, when eight parents met to form a group focusing on the needs of what were then referred to as mentally retarded children, there were virtually no support services available, Executive Director Stephen Morgan said.
Now, The Arc offers a range of programs for disabled people in the arenas of job placement, housing, family services and social pursuits, reaching more than 6,000 people.
Project Search, which Brown is a part of, is a new program that recruits a dozen students in their final year of special education in Baltimore public schools to focus almost exclusively on acquiring and maintaining a job.
In addition to the curriculum, students rotate in a number of internships, spending up to two months at each to determine which job will fit best. When Brown was in the first class of the program, one of his internships was his current position.
Having been successful at placing students in jobs post graduation, Project Search, now in its third year, has expanded to two classes and doubled in enrollment, Morgan, 60, said.
Had Brown not participated in Project Search, “my guess is he’d be sitting at home with no meaningful activity,” which could result in isolation, loss of skill, Morgan said.
Before 1975, when there was no entitlement to public education, disabled children were excluded from school, barring them from learning the basic skills necessary to most jobs in the workforce. Programs like Project Search have transformed the trajectory for the adult life of a disabled person.
In its beginning, The Arc offered sheltered workshops in which a group of people would label, box or package for companies that would bring in products.
“It was an opportunity to earn wages, but not optimum because it still isolated people from the community,” Morgan said.
Removing disabled people from isolated environments and into the community has been an ongoing practice of The Arc as “individual empowerment and community focus are the two most distinguishing features of what we do,” Morgan said.
In 1971, The Arc opened the first community home in Maryland for disabled people. Before it opened, the only other option outside of the family home was confinement in state institutions. Such facilities tended to be large, impersonal and poorly maintained with unhealthy environments, Morgan said.
The Arc now supports more than 300 people throughout nearly 200 sites in the community.
Rather than a dormitory type facility, The Arc’s homes are small, free-standing houses or apartments that typically accommodate three people with whatever necessary complement of staffing, either live-in or shift, Morgan said.
Maintaining its good work has been more difficult in the current recession. With about 70 percent of The Arc’s funding coming from the state and the other 30 percent coming largely from charity, grants and work contracts that have been lost or reduced, the past few years have been a challenge, Director of Advancement Kate McGuire said.
In order to protect services, The Arc has been forced to lay off some employees, furlough others and depend more on volunteers.
McGuire said the Arc supports a proposed dime-a-drink tax, which if approved, would provide state money for disability services, among other things. She remains hopeful that funding will increase to help the many people on the waiting list to receive services.
“Across the board, we’re making due with less,” McGuire said. “You try to get creative, but the needs of the people don’t change, so we can’t compromise.”