Nancy Thaler, the top person in charge of Pennsylvania’s $4 billion publicly-funded service system for people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism, announced her plans to retire from state service at the end of August. Her retirement is well deserved, yet people with disabilities and their families will miss her.
I got to know Nancy in the mid-90s when she was Deputy Secretary (the first time) for the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP). I was a new policy staffer at what was then known as the Department of Public Welfare (DPW). I was coming into state government with newly-elected Governor Tom Ridge and Nancy was a “holdover” from the previous administration. During typical transitions, deputy secretaries would either leave or they’d be replaced by the incoming governor – in this case, all deputies at DPW did indeed change except for Nancy Thaler. That’s because Nancy’s public policy goals of promoting home and community-based services in lieu of institutional settings were exactly aligned with the incoming Governor. Nancy was asked to stay on, and it was my privilege to work with (and learn from) Nancy during her tenure. A lot was accomplished for people with intellectual disabilities during that administration, and I attribute as much to Nancy’s vision and drive as I do to Governor Ridge’s leadership and personal commitment to people with disabilities.
Nancy eventually left state government but stayed in the field, helping shape public policy at a national level at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and then for the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services. She returned to Pennsylvania as deputy secretary for ODP in mid-2015. Three years later, the ODP ship has been righted and is now on a positive trajectory for the future. Change in state government is very difficult to pull off, but Nancy has done it and she deserves a lot of credit for what’s been accomplished.
Nancy Thaler has always been a friend to ACHIEVA – probably because she and our organization are of like mind, being committed to community-based services, inclusion, and finding new and innovative ways to do things. Just last month, Nancy visited ACHIEVA to get an update on “vocational transformation” – ACHIEVA’s effort to transition away from sheltered workshops and toward competitive-integrated employment and community participation. The movement from facility-based programming to work and community participation has been a priority for Nancy. She was impressed with the progress we’ve made and affirmed during her visit ACHIEVA’s status as a leader in its field.
As we say farewell to Nancy, we congratulate and welcome Kristen Ahrens as the new Acting Deputy Secretary. People with disabilities and their families are fortunate to have Kristen in this position as she shares ACHIEVA’s commitment to community-based services, inclusion, quality, and innovation. ACHIEVA has a long history of working with Kristin – its advocacy and family supports staff having worked with Kristin for almost 10 years on the “Partnership” when she was with Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. We look forward to working with Kristen to continue the positive momentum and give all people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism in southwestern Pennsylvania an “Everyday Life.”