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Waiting it out

People with disabilities and their families pin hopes for state help on Amendment 51


Marty Unruh, shown with his sister Marsha, waits with 10,000 others. - LAURA MONTGOMERY
  • LAura Montgomery
  • Marty Unruh, shown with his sister Marsha, waits with 10,000 others.

On Mondays, Marty Unruh takes pottery and reading classes before participating in a therapeutic horseback riding program.

On Tuesdays, he has a woodworking class, and the 46-year-old keeps busy the rest of the week with lessons in drawing, cooking and other skills.

Marty works on Fridays dismantling computers for recycling, but he isn't paid since he's still in training. He's supervised the whole time by an attendant making $10 an hour.

Most of the activities are new for Marty, who has a developmental disability stemming from a surgical mishap that happened when he was a year old. In November, he came to live with his sister Marsha Unruh and her husband in Colorado Springs, parting for the first time from his retired parents in North Dakota.

"He was basically living the life of an 80-year-old," Marsha says of Marty's splitting time between his parents' home and a day program that amounted to babysitting.

Marsha says her brother's interests have broadened to include dogsledding and skiing. His once-common outbursts of yelling and door-slamming have disappeared.

But the activities are expensive; Marsha estimates the monthly bill for her brother's programs and needs comes to more than $1,000. The state offers support for some with developmental disabilities, but to get it, Marty has to make his way through a waiting list of more than 10,000 names.

He was just added in January, so his wait could last years, even decades, if Colorado voters this November do not pass Amendment 51, which would phase in a new sales tax of 2 cents on every $10 purchase to fund long-term services for people with developmental disabilities.

Marsha proudly wears an Amendment 51 badge each day to her job at Colorado College, where she is director of education career services, but she sounds pragmatic talking about the measure's chances.

"It needs to happen," she says, "but they've been ignored for so long."

The measure itself has been largely ignored on a ballot crammed with controversial proposals. But it has united a surprisingly bipartisan range of supporters, including local state Reps. Michael Merrifield and Bob Gardner.

"There are things that government ought to do because others cannot, or will not," says Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican. "We have not in Colorado done a good job overall of funding developmental disability services."

Merrifield, a Democrat, offers a simple explanation as to why voters should say "yes" to the amendment: "Because it's the right thing to do."

About 5,000 on the waiting list are in a situation like Marty was, living with parents older than 60 (his mother is 80, his father 77). Marsha saw her parents' age and the likelihood of future health problems as reasons to step in and help.

Many seniors still care for developmentally disabled adult children because they have no other options. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people on the list need comprehensive residential assistance, according to Roger Jensen, CEO for Starpoint, which administers services in Fremont, Chaffee and Custer counties. Jensen says many end up getting services only when their parents fall ill or die, throwing the system into crisis mode.

Colorado ranks near the bottom of states in support for people with developmental disabilities, Jensen notes.

"We just haven't kept pace," he says.

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