Sarah Andrews Roehrich
As a mom and an early intervention speech-language pathologist in Massachusetts, I have never been so determined to plunge into the political arena as I have since Gov. Deval Patrick's administration proposed drastic cuts to the 2011 and 2012 early intervention budgets.
But, as a rather shy person, I kept thinking, "The governor doesn't know who I am, why would my voice matter?" However, this issue was important. Early intervention in Massachusetts serves more than 33,000 infants and toddlers. In 2010, this program saved the state about $25 million in special education services. Despite these savings, Gov. Patrick's administration proposed to cut $8 million from the 2012 early intervention budget. These cuts meant that as many as 6,000 children with developmental disabilities could have lost speech-language services and physical therapy, and an additional 10,000 children could have faced coverage gaps.
The early intervention community joined forces to challenge the proposed cuts. Hundreds of people called and e-mailed their legislative representatives to voice their support for early intervention. They signed petitions, shared their stories and children's photographs, and posted on Facebook. At the second annual Stroller-In, families visited the governor and legislators at the State House to show unwavering support for early intervention.
But, still, how could I help? Last spring, I attended a presentation by Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and specialist in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He talked about how, despite his struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD in the 1950s, his teacher would encourage him every day to learn how to read. Another teacher encouraged him to write his first novel in high school. He talked about the importance of dreaming, connecting with others, living in the moment, and encouraging others to reach for the stars. He and other presenters and writers were inspiring. Finally, I found the courage to find my voice, to oppose the budget cuts, and encourage others to advocate for early intervention.
I wrote my letter and sent it to the governor and to my House and Senate representatives. I paid attention to the budget process between March and June, and e-mailed and called my representatives and the governor's office at each step of the way.
Ultimately, the Senate took the lead in turning the budget around. The Senate Ways and Means Committee issued a statement in support of early intervention, the House agreed, and the governor approved the 2012 early intervention budget in full.
Teaching families how to help their children to function appropriately in a classroom environment, learn to read, and respond to bullying has taught me to believe in the power of early intervention. Learning how to work together to inform policymakers and government leaders about the critical role of early intervention helped me understand the importance of building bridges between the supporters of early intervention and the policy-makers whose budget decisions shape the future of this invaluable program. Experiencing how everyone's hard work and advocacy could indeed make a difference is truly one of the highlights of my career.