County, city and town officials hear ways to better accommodate people with special needs

CANANDAIGUA — Marc Molinaro won’t know right away if his four-and-a-half-hour drive from Poughkeepsie was worth it. But hopefully Ontario County families living with autism and various disabilities will find out before too long.

Capping off National Autism Awareness month, the Dutchess County executive shared his story Friday with Ontario County leaders, city and town officials and agency heads at the New York Wine and Culinary Center.

The sit-down came at Assemblyman Brian Kolb’s request — he believes Molinaro’s Think DIFFERENTLY initiative, which has retooled local government in Dutchess County, can inspire change in Ontario and Seneca counties as well.

Kolb said helping those most in need of help has been, and continues to be, his number-one priority.

“That’s why I’ve been such a strong advocate to help those families and individuals with special needs,” he said. “The Think DIFFERENTLY program, which I think is a leading edge program in Dutchess County, was something I wanted our community to hear about. Hopefully it will inspire people to start talking and start doing.”

Molinaro laid out the enormous challenges families with disabled members face, and possible solutions.  

“The things that we take for granted every single day are challenges for people who are looking on from the outside,” Molinaro told community leaders. “They need their support services there. They need their service providers there. They need an integrated system that works together, not in silos.”

Families need every individual to see humanity in their child, instead of looking at the disability or the differently abled, said Molinaro.  

“Whether its an emergency or everyday life, Think DIFFERENTLY is about ensuring that a young kid like my daughter doesn’t have to navigate a system to get special education services or early intervention services…,” he said.

Think DIFFERENTLY is about about the teenager who’s preparing to graduate from high school, wondering if there’s a higher educational opportunity for them, Molinaro said. It’s about a differently abled 25-year-old or the 30-year-old knowing that the bus system is coordinated with major employers so when they need to get to and from work, it can happen without a three-hour wait at a bus stop, he said.

“It’s about the mom and dad who are about my age, who worry about what’s going to happen next,” said Molinaro. “Is my daughter going to have a housing opportunity?”

It’s about the 35- or 40-year-old woman who has limiting disability and just wants to be sure that she has friends and family to support her as her parents age. It’s about the senior with an adult child on the spectrum or with a disability, who worries that if they dial 911, will emergency responders know what to do?

Among other efforts, Dutchess County has synced up transit systems with major employers work shifts, and is training all 911 dispatchers, police and emergency responders in crisis intervention, mental health first aid and special needs response. In September 2016, Molinaro appointed Toni-Marie Ciarfella to be Dutchess County’s first Deputy Commissioner for Special Needs. She’s in charge of coordinating county services, bringing community agencies together for common goals, and advocating for individuals and families with special abilities who need a voice.

Locally, the town of Victor adopted a resolution in January calling all local, county and state officials, business owners, and residents to adopt the Think Differently initiative so they’re “better prepared to communicate with, provide for, and support those living with developmental disabilities and special needs.”

It reflects existing town initiatives for youth and adults with developmental disabilities, including the Friday Night Social program, the Summertime Picnic for kids and adults with special needs, and the Free Wheel’n Bike Clinic in cooperation with Ontario County ARC.

But Victor Supervisor Jack Marren said there’s more to come.

“As proud as I am of what we’ve been able to accomplish, I think we can do more in the town,” said Marren after Molinaro spoke on Friday.

“We need to think of the entire population, not the majority of the population,” said Marren. “Unfortunately, it’s a part of the population that needs it the most, and they’re overlooked.”

Think Differently will impact future infrastructure changes, sidewalks, walking corridors and bike paths.  

“A year ago Marc introduced this initiative,” said Marren. “After listening to this presentation again, I had to step back and say, can Victor do more? And I think we do, we need to.”

Victor Director of Parks and Recreation Brian Emelson has his sights set next on Harlan Fisher Park off Lynaugh Road. There’s an existing accessible playground, but it’s antiquated and doesn’t serve the younger population, he said.

There are also a lot of little changes that can be made, like including pictures of kids with developmental disabilities in the town’s printed programs, he said.

Ontario County ARC Executive Director Ann Scheetz was brimming after the presentation.

“We support so many individuals who need the support of the community, and this was perfect,” she said. “The right people were in the room. I hope it did inspire people to 'Think DIFFERENTLY.'”