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Mayor Anthony A. Williams
Welcoming Address to the American Association on Mental Retardation
May 31, 2000




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Text as Prepared for Delivery
May 31, 2000
Contact: Peggy Armstrong
(202) 727-5011

Mayor Anthony A. Williams
Welcome Address to the American Association on Mental Retardation

Thank you for having me. I'm proud to be here to welcome you to our Nation's Capital.

It's appropriate that you've chosen to hold your National Conference here in the District of Columbia. Not only because we are the Nation's Capital, but also because we are a city confronting the very challenges this organization is dedicated to addressing.

We also understand that challenges in caring for persons with disabilities are not unique to our city.

To get some perspective, let me just give you a few numbers:

  • The population of the world is more than 6 billion.
  • The population of the United States is almost 275 million.
  • Of those people, 300 million worldwide and 7 million in the United States have some form of developmental disability. That's 25 times as many people as those who are affected by blindness.

Now, sometimes people tend to stereotype me as a mere "number cruncher" just because I happen to be a card-carrying member of the Government Finance Officers Association.

But in this case, the numbers are more than mere statistics. They are people who need our support.

It has been said that the measure of a good society is not how it treats the strong and prosperous, but how it treats those who are vulnerable. In the District of Columbia - as has happened in other cities - our government has failed that obligation.

When I took office, our agency for persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities - MRDDA - was fundamentally broken. More than 20 years of mismanagement, neglect, abuse, and outright fraud have put thousands of our most vulnerable citizens at risk.

We have learned from painful experience that our MRDD system is not a system. It is - at best - a collection of broken gears. People were losing their lives, and no one was there to help.

I am not interested in hearing or making any excuses. There is no excuse when people die. What I am interested in is making sure that this kind of breakdown never happens again.

For the last 90 days, we have moved aggressively to remove the imminent threats to the life and safety of disabled persons.

We are conducting a thorough evaluation of the medical well being of individuals in the system-something that had never been done. And when someone dies, it gets referred to the medical examiner.

We have two federal investigators working with us and we now collect reports on all "unusual incidents" and store them for analysis and follow-up.

We now require background checks for employees, and have evaluated all employees for general competencies related to their positions. Where needed, we are providing immediate, substantive remedial training.

And for the first time in 23 years, the city is up to date in responding to the courts and court monitor's reports.

We have come a long way in 3 months. But you cannot reverse 20 years of decline in 90 days. The bottom line is that we still have a system that is fundamentally broken.

Making our system work will take a long-term investment-and a commitment from our entire community.

My vision is for our city to become a place where people with developmental disabilities and their families:

  • Are safe, healthy, and secure
  • Have explicit rights that are enforced Make informed decisions about their lives and goals Achieve maximum independence
  • Live, work and play in our communities, and
  • Are valued for their contributions to the community.

As a first step, I am sending legislation to the Council to expand our authority to outsource or use managed competition for most of the services in this area that government does poorly.

We will restructure, redefine, and reduce the government's role, focusing our efforts on expanding options for individuals and their families, and providing the proper oversight and enforcement.

Second, we will create new alternatives to group homes -- a menu of options to allow individuals to achieve their fullest potential and to live as independently as possible. I believe our dollars should be spent on people and not institutions; quality flexible services not bureaucratic apparatus. Third, I will present strong and effective legislation that provides quality oversight for every person in our care. An independent monitoring commission, in cooperation with the advocates, will ensure that all complaints are investigated and that oversight is timely and thorough.

Fourth, and finally, later today I will swear in members of the D.C. Serious Incident and Fatality Review Committee who will be charged with monitoring and guarding against the gross negligence that has become all to common in our system.

I don't believe for a minute that all of this will be easy. But as Woodrow Wilson said, "We do not improve our muscle by doing the easy thing; we improve our muscle by doing the hard thing."

And we will not be able to do it alone. That's why I am looking to outside organizations to help provide services that government has proven unable to provide.

Organizations like this one can also play an important role. The American Association of Mental Retardation has a long record of offering leadership in service for the mentally challenged. Your improvements in patient care have improved the lives of citizens across the United States and 55 countries across the world.

So I would challenge you to visit us in a year and see what we've done. My Administration is one of action not one of idle discussion. And I think you'll see that - in 12 months - we're going to be offering better care, stronger oversight and more education.

And if we are not living up to our obligations, I hope you'll be our strongest critic.

It boils down to this. Every person has something to offer. Maybe instead of using the term "persons with disabilities," we should say "persons with unrecognized potential."

How can we overlook the human potential of 7 million people? How can we allow so many of our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens to suffer needlessly when we know we can do better?

It's going to be a challenge. But I see it as an opportunity. And I'm confident that - as we improve our services - we'll set the standard of care for our nation. Thank you.

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