AACORN Farm (Adult Agricultural Community Option for Residential Needs) is a nonprofit organization formed by parents and professionals in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We have the dream to own a farm where adults with disabilities can work and live in an environment that offers a quality of life no urban setting ever could. My son Tom is 23 and has autism. He has a desire to work and live in a farm environment and has a special relationship with cows - he is known at the AACORN Farm vocational program as "The Cow Whisperer". After an afternoon of work caring for animals and growing food crops at AACORN's small rented farm Tom is often rewarded with a visit to a nearby farm to "commune with the cows". AACORN's farm-based vocational program has served 20 people with disabilities in our community and each one of those individuals chose to come to the farm, many of them having failed at every other vocational program. This issue is not just that farms who serve people with disabilities were singled out to lose funding for vocational and residential programs, more importantly this issue is about CHOICE.
The final regulations were described as “outcome-oriented”, but this guidance is misleading and not based on assessment of quality of life nor current research. In the midst of a dire lack of opportunities, state leaders must be informed that people with disabilities want INCREASED options and DECREASED barriers to housing and employment choices.
There are parents of children and adults with disabilities all over the US working hard to create agriculturally based programs and housing in an effort to get ahead of the looming crisis of a lack of appropriate services for adults. In the next decade 500,000 children with autism will be entering the adult mental health system, a system already straining to meet the needs of those they currently serve.
Several years ago, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) released a proposed regulation change that defined what settings people with disabilities could use for their Home & Community-Based Service (HCBS) waivers. The proposed policy restricted housing and employment options, and many responded with the demand for less restrictive definitions of “home and community”. CMS released the federal Final Regulations in January 2014 and has charged every state to create new state regulations for what settings HCBS waivers can be used.
In March 2014, CMS offered further guidance that included a document called, "Guidance on settings that have the effect of isolating individuals receiving HCBS from the broader community" They shared examples of specific settings including: farmsteads, gated / secured “communities” for people with disabilities, residential schools, and multiple use campuses as “having the effect of isolating.” Individuals who live or work in these types of intentional home and communities with their peers are now at risk of losing funding for their supports. Farm-based programs were singled out as "isolating" individuals from their communities.
Right now, by December 24th, every state is required to create a transition plan for the next 5 years to come into compliance with new guidelines. In it's current form these guidelines will require thousands of adults all over the US to leave their farm based programs against their will. The new guidelines will effectively doom every agricultural program, including AACORN Farm.
I have heard that there are advocates who feel that farms are "institutional", I am certain those advocates have not seen the transformative change that happens when people with autism/development disabilities choose to work and live in a farm community . AACORN Farm has a mission to Expand Options, Build Community. (aacornfarm.org) Please visit our website for more information about our program.
Visit Coalition for Community Choice at coalitionforcommunitychoice.org to find out what you can do to help preserve choice. My son Tom has no idea the level of controversy over these new rules and regulations and how his dream will be denied. I intend to work every day to change the misguided notion that farm living is less satisfying than an urban life. I think millions of farmers all over America would agree.
Catherine Pinto is married to Matthew Pinto and they have 4 sons ages 27 to 21. Their 23 year old son with autism, Tom, has loved horses, cows, chickens and pigs for many years. In 2011 Catherine and other parents of adults with autism/developmental disabilities decided to take action. They started a new non-profit organization, AACORN Farm. AACORN Farm has received generous support from local foundations and community members who believe in their mission to expand choices and build community.