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Easter Seal Society intervenes early for long-term benefit

The Easter Seal Center of Tampa helps handicapped children and adults reach their potential by providing services that increase self-esteem, mobility and independence while minimizing the effects of physical disabilities. The goal of Easter Seal is to provide opportunities for people with disabilities tohelp them be the best they can be. Easter Seal has provided services in Tampa for 37 years. During most of this time, the society has been identified in the community as the agency that would provide physical, occupational and speech therapy services free to indigent people or to those whose insurance no longer would cover the cost of services. Easter Seal continues to offer these services to those in need but whose economics have dictated that services be provided on a sliding fee scale.

Through financing from the United Way of Greater Tampa, Easter Seal can provide therapy services at a reduced cost to people in need.

Every Easter Seal organization nationwide designs its services to meet the needs of the community. In the last year, Easter Seal in Tampa has made a significant change in the focus of its services, a result of its involvement in the Hillsborough County Needs Assessment process.

Hillsborough County has a crucial need for affordable and quality early intervention child-care programs to comprehensively serve the needs of children younger than age 5 with developmental disabilities and their families. These children with conditions such as Down's syndrome, orthopedic impairments, neurological impairments, as well as special health and medical needs (tube feedings, catheterizations and so forth) rarely are accepted for enrollment in regular day-care programs.

The Easter Seal Early Intervention Program provides for special-needs children, as well as the parents' need for quality child care and a network of support. But without support from financing sources such as the United Way, no early intervention programs can be affordable for the average family.

Research has documented that intensive early structured intervention for handicapped, developmentally delayed and at-risk children eliminates or decreases the degree of long-term disability and maximizes potential for an independent adult life. The University of South Florida College of Public Health estimates that 1,356 special-needs children are in Hillsborough County _ children needing early intervention services. The number of children being born with exposure to drugs increases the number of at-risk children in this community who must have early intervention to live independently.

An early intervention program is offered in an environment that is safe, developmentally appropriate, stimulating and containing the equipment and materials necessary to meet the individual child's needs. The staff members of the Easter Seal program are certified teachers. They are assisted by aides who have completed the state of Florida Child Care Worker's Certificate. All therapists are fully licensed. The staff-to-child ratio in the program is 1-to-4.

Early intervention services for special-needs children include a curriculum that targets language development, fine motor, gross motor, socialization and self-help skills. Services include speech/language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, a developmental program developed specifically for the needs of the child and the family and a family component that facilitates the family's access to other social services in the community and to a network of support. Together the family and program staff minimize the effects of handicapping and developmentally delaying conditions. Most importantly, the child benefits by significant increases in self-esteem as a result of an environment built on success.

The availability of quality and affordable child care for parents of special-needs children means they can continue to be employed and retain the insurance benefits that defray the expenses of medical care for their children.

It is important for all communities to be aware that in 1986 Congress passed legislation recognizing that early intervention for handicapped, developmentally delayed and at-risk infants and toddlers could prevent and minimize long-term adverse effects to families, children and society. This legislation is referred to as Public Law 99-457, Part H. States that wanted to participate were given five years' planning time and financial assistance to develop a coordinated, comprehensive, multidisciplinary statewide system of early intervention to meet the full requirements of the law. Florida is in the fourth year of the planning process for implementation of this law. Implementation with a proper financing base and a continuum of choice for families will improve the availability of services in all communities. Adequate implementation will come only as a result of advocacy by people in each community with interest in obtaining the best possible services for vulnerable infants and toddlers.

It is the desire of Easter Seal and the United Way to improve and increase services to special-needs children and their families in this community.

Through increased community awareness and support of the United Way, improved and increased services will be a reality.

The Easter Seal vision for this community is a continuum of services where parents of special-needs children have a choice of quality, affordable services available in a variety of settings in the community.

- Grace McCleary is executive director of the Tampa office of Florida Easter Seal Society Inc.

This is one in a series of guest columns on social service agencies that receive money from the United Way of Greater Tampa. The United Way's annual fund-raising campaign began Sept. 11 and will run through Nov. 16. The agency hopes to raise $10-million this year to distribute to 43 agencies.