by Jonathan Copsey; Appen Newspapers
Milton – A new development will be built on Deerfield Parkway to house and teach autistic adults, despite community opposition to the plan coming from those who champion the rights of those who are disabled.
Called the "Watercolors Transitions Vocational School," the project by Illinois developer Rick Swanson would sit on almost 13 acres of land. The school would be two stories tall and would teach autistic adults life skills and vocational training. Along with that would be apartment-style housing for up to 72 people, with the possibility for more.
"In the next 15 years, Georgia will have half a million disabled kids grow into adulthood," said Swanson. He further pointed out that the vast majority of programs to help those with autism are geared toward youth. Once a person reaches age 18, the programs stop and the person is left to fend for himself.
Opposition to the site comes not from neighboring businesses or concerned citizens, as is often the case for zoning matters, but instead from Milton's disabilities community.
"This is a terrible idea," said Rita Young, director of public policy for All About Developmental Disabilities (AADD). "This is an institution, and public institutions are not closing so private ones can open."
She cited a recent Department of Justice agreement with Georgia, forcing the state to close its institutional housing for those with disabilities.
"Lumping people together lends to negligence and abuse," Young added.
Ann Coggins, of the Milton Disabilities Awareness Committee (MDAC), said the project doesn't help the disabilities community.
"Segregated housing and special schools are not inclusive," Coggins said. "There are other ways and other options to do this better."
Mark Baker, of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said the issue was about the very nature of the proposed site. "To have that kind of density of population in that kind of land area, away from residential areas, is to us another form of institutionalization."
What he and the other advocates aim for is to integrate those with disabilities in the communities around them, instead of making special schools or housing for them.
The community took additional insult to never being contacted by Swanson about his proposal. The first they heard of the building was a week prior to the meeting – long after the idea was submitted to the city.
Particularly embarrassing for Swanson's proposal was when Scott Bales took the microphone to oppose the plan. Bales has autism, and said, "I would not live in a facility like this, and don't know anyone who would want to live there."
He said he has worked hard to live a normal life with a good job and home.
Swanson and his attorney fended off accusations of building an "institution" by asserting it was entirely voluntary to live and stay there and to attend the classes.
"This is not an institution," Swanson said. "This is a home."
He pointed out that living among the community is just not an option for many people with autism, who may require care.
However, none of the arguments offered by the Milton community swayed the council or City Attorney Ken Jarrard.
"If a business has no customer base, it will fail," said Jarrard, saying that, since it was a zoning case, whether the business would be successful or is ethical is beside the point. "That is not up to the council to decide."
Swanson promised to work with the Milton residents on the issue, however he balked at the idea that any such wording be included in the passage of the zoning.
"I don't think it's the city's job to pull both sides together," Swanson said. "You have my word that we will work with the people here tonight, but I don't think it's fair to postpone this action."
Jarrard agreed, saying, "No government I've worked for has been able to make people compromise."