Taking the Florida Plunge With A Special Needs Family Member
Planning a move to Florida can be daunting and exhausting. Planning a move to Florida with a special needs family member can be daunting, exhausting AND overwhelming. In 2007, we moved to Florida from Georgia with our 13 year old son who has autism. Looking back on our experience, I’ve compiled a short list of tips and suggestions to help when you move to the sunshine state. This list is not exhaustive and additional feedback regarding your own experience is welcome.
Usually, the first item in deciding to move to Florida is how and where your special needs family member will be educated. I suggest you investigate the area’s special education program as much as you can. Talk with other parents in the Florida Plunge group. After you narrow down the area you want to live, try to tour the schools your child may attend. Some school districts have designated schools for certain disabilities (not necessarily your zoned school for regular education) if the child is not mainstreamed throughout the day.
IEP transfer. Make sure you have copies of all documents (IEPs, 504 plans, etc.) for your child(ren) from his/her current school. Just as important are copies of the most recent evaluations including but not limited to speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychological and behavioral assessments and any behavior plan.
Another helpful resource is Florida’s Parent Training and Information Center (PTI). All states have at least one PTI and Florida has three. PTIs provide families information about the disability of their child, about early intervention services (for babies and toddlers), school services (for school-aged children), therapy, local policies, transportation and much more. To find the PTI that serves the area you are moving to visit this website.
Also important to know is Florida offers the McKay scholarship for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice. Florida has a variety of private schools that specialize in educating students with disabilities. The McKay scholarship helps alleviate the prohibitive cost of attending those schools. But know up front, some schools may have a waiting list.
If homeschooling is the course of education your child needs, there is The Gardiner Scholarship available for students with disabilities who attend non-public schools or home school.
Services through the Florida MedWaiver Program
Many states provide service for persons with developmental disabilities through their Medicaid department. The Agency For Persons With Disabilities (APD) handles the Medicaid waiver program for persons with developmental disabilities in Florida. However, the wait list for services through the MedWaiver is an average of 5-7 years. Wait list priority placement depends on the individual needs of the person with a disability. Service Groups include: Life Skills Development; Supplies and Equipment; Personal Supports; Residential Services; Transportation; Adult Dental; Therapeutic Supports and Wellness; and Support Coordination. For more information and how to apply for Med Waiver services, visit http://apd.myflorida.com/. I highly recommend you apply for the MedWaiver immediately after you become a Florida resident.
When deciding whether or not to move to Florida, special needs families may require specialized medical services for their family member including but not limited to speech and occupational therapy, behavior therapy, psychological service, neurological services, specialized dental services and complex medical services. Researching the area hospitals and services providers, asking for recommendations from the providers where you currently reside and networking with others who have similar needs already living in your proposed area are helpful ways to find the medical services your family member may need.
For Florida families who have special needs members nearing or having reached adulthood, adult services in Florida are not abundant and can be difficult to find and/or fund. Once an adult with disabilities is off the MedWaiver wait list and is eligible to receive services through the MedWaiver, it can be easier to fund services but finding good quality services or providers may still be difficult. Depending on the needs of the individual, Florida MedWaiver does provide residential support services for those living in certified group homes and assisted living facilities. In addition, Florida MedWaiver provides Supported Living Coaching for those with disabilities who live in and maintain their own homes/apartments.
Recreation and Entertainment
One of the most appealing benefits of living in Florida is the variety of year-round activities in which families can participate. Whether it is visiting the beach, a lake or spring, the abundant state parks, museums, zoos, cruising or the world’s best theme parks, persons with disabilities may find some accommodations provided in order to make their visits possible or more enjoyable. Please research the particular venue’s website you are interested in taking your family member to find information about the special accommodations available. My website www.AutismAtTheParks.com outlines the accommodations provided by Orlando’s theme parks to those guests with developmental disabilities.
I also suggest that you research your local municipality and see if they provide recreational services for persons with disabilities. You may be pleasantly surprised what is available. For example in central Florida, Altamonte Springs Recreational Department has a very active year-round special needs program including field trips, monthly socials, cooking classes, swimming lessons, ballroom dancing lessons, and a seasonal clubhouse/day camp. The Oviedo-Winter Springs Optimist Club sponsors events including monthly dances and weekly bowling for the special needs population. Easter Seals sponsors residential and day camps at their facilities throughout Florida. Special Olympics Florida is an outstanding organization and provides a wide variety of sports year-round for persons with intellectual disabilities.
Support and making connections after the move
One significant factor that many cite as the reason they are not happy after moving to Florida is the lack of connecting with other individuals/families who have similar interests. For special needs families, connecting can be more difficult. Reaching out to others and making those connections can be easier if you join groups like the Florida Plunge Facebook group and other groups and organizations that may be relevant to your situation. One organization I highly recommend is the Family Café – they “provide individuals with disabilities and their families with an opportunity for collaboration, advocacy, friendship and empowerment by serving as a facilitator of communication, a space for dialogue and a source of information.” I’ve listed a few more organizations below but please know there are many more out there.
In conclusion, every state has its pros and cons. Understanding what options and limitations of services that may exist in Florida for your special needs family member is important to your entire family and your quality of life. Our family has embraced living in Florida and although there have been a few bumps in the road, we are very happy living here and plan to do so for the rest of our lives.
I’ve listed some resources below. This list is by no means exhaustive. Please do your own research and make decisions for your family that best suits them.
Florida Department of Education http://www.fldoe.org/
Great Schools http://www.greatschools.org/florida/
Florida Parent-Educators Association http://fpea.com/
Florida Virtual School https://www.flvs.net/
Florida’s Parent Training Information centers:
Family Network on Disabilities (FND) http://fndusa.org/
Parent Education Network (PEN) http://fndusa.org/contact-us/programs/pen/
Parents of the Panhandle Information Network (POPIN) http://fndusa.org/contact-us/programs/popin/
Parent to Parent of Miami, Inc. http://www.ptopmiami.org/
Agency for Persons with Disabilities http://apd.myflorida.com/
Disability Rights Florida http://www.disabilityrightsflorida.org/
Family Café yearly convention for persons with disabilities http://www.familycafe.net/
Brightfeats (Brightfeats.com) Extensive listings of community services for the special needs community, including service providers, camps and schools.
Center for Autism and Related Disabilities http://florida-card.org/
Autism Society of Greater Orlando http://asgo.org/
Autism Speaks – Florida Resources https://www.autismspeaks.org/resource-guide/state/FL
Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida http://www.dsacf.org/
United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida https://www.ucpcfl.org/
Special Olympics Florida http://specialolympicsflorida.org/
Best Buddies – Florida http://bestbuddies.org/find-programs/florida/
Nathaniel’s Hope: http://www.nathanielshope.org/
Easter Seals: http://www.easterseals.com/florida/
Florida State Parks: https://www.floridastateparks.org/access-for-all/accessibility-and-inclusion-policy
Atlamonte Springs Special Needs http://www.altamonte.org/index.aspx?nid=376
Oviedo-Winter Springs Optimist Club http://owsoptimistclub.com/
The following was recorded for The Florida Plunge Show on April 11, 2018.
About the author:
Maureen Deal is married and has a son with autism. She and her family visit an Orlando theme park several times a month. In 2012, Maureen created AutismAtTheParks.com to help vacationers who have a family member with a developmental disability to better navigate and enjoy Orlando’s theme parks. She is also a contributor to the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Periscope.
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