By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau
DELAWARE, Ohio - At 25, Deidre Corrigan just figured out how to dress herself, cook breakfast and get to work at Wendy's each day.
Ms. Corrigan, who has Down syndrome, developed her new skills with the help of a $15,000 talking computer system paid for by the Delaware County Board of Mental Retardation.
The computer uses her mother's voice and tells her when to get up, how to wash her face and how to cook an egg. It even reminds her to lock the front door on her way to the cab.
"This computer has changed our lives,'' says Judy Smith, Ms. Corrigan's mother. "Deidre stays on track and if she forgets, the computer will tell her, `Your cab will be here any minute.' "
While mentally retarded Ohioans struggle to get medical care and help with day-to-day chores, residents in Delaware County reap huge benefits from one of the most highly touted home-care programs in the nation. Unlike other Ohio counties, the rapidly growing suburb north of Columbus offers programs tailored around what families say they need - not necessarily what counties say they should have.
"Alternative services often better fit a person's needs,'' explains Bob Morgan, superintendent of the Delaware County mental retardation board. An added bonus is "the cost savings are significant."
For example, if a mentally retarded man wants to work at McDonald's, administrators can pay for his transportation to the restaurant with money they would have spent supervising him at the county workshop.
"We found out that families, once they realized how much services cost, got very creative," says Cheryl Archer, a director for the county system. "They'd say, `I'll find a job for John if we can use the workshop money to get him to and from work.' "
The county also saves money on its program for babies and pre-schoolers. Delaware County spends about $13,000 on each child enrolled in the daily school program but many families choose to forgo it and get speech therapy or other services for their children at home. Getting services at home costs an average of $6,000 - less than half of the program costs.
Mr. Morgan says Delaware County is focused on helping people build new skills and confidence. Providing a computer system for Ms. Corrigan, for instance, helped her learn to do more on her own so she won't someday need expensive, around-the-clock care.
"The whole purpose of this computer is so Deidre can get her own apartment," her mother says. "I will bawl my eyes out when she leaves, but I want that independence for her."
Unlike other Ohio counties, Delaware County was awarded a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that helped cut through federal red tape to give families greater choice.
But the program is not without challenges. One of the biggest, Mr. Morgan says, is convincing county workers to let mentally retarded people and their families make their own decisions. "Staff sometimes try to throw a whole lot of services at people they really don't need. You've got to keep your mouth shut and let people tell you what they want."
Al and Michelle Perry, the Delaware parents of triplets, were only too happy to tell Delaware officials what they needed for their 3-year-old daughter Savannah, who has cerebral palsy.
When she was born, the Perrys didn't want the nursing help typically provided by a county mental retardation board. Instead, Mrs. Perry asked the county to pay for a housekeeper - a much less expensive option.
"I had one shot at mothering my infants, and I just wanted the time to give them what they need," Mrs. Perry explains. "We had no idea the county board would pay for housecleaning."
The county board also gave them nearly $800 to buy a special stroller and another $1,000 for a special swing. It also paid to remove carpet from their home so Savannah could move more freely in her walker.
"If we lived in another place, Savannah would be expected to go through life without so many things," Mr. Perry says. "That would just be heartbreaking."