By Kirsten Goruk, Grande Prairie Daily Herald TribuneMore than 50 people joined forces on Friday afternoon to protest provincial government cuts that will change the community access supports funded through Persons with Developmental Disabilities.Several similar protests were held across the province Friday, all in an effort raise awareness and let government officials know support staff and those who access PDD supports are concerned about how the $42 million being cut from the $96 million community access budget will affect services.“We have no issue with being fiscally responsible. We absolutely need to be; it’s yours and my taxpayers dollars and I don’t want them just tossing it away. However, they really need to rethink the strategies as far as pulling from the vulnerable sector,” said Heather Haiste, Grande Prairie’s Public Interest Alberta mobilizer.Haiste runs a support home in addition to other work she does in the community and believes these cuts will negatively impact not only the support workers in the area, but also the approximately 1,000 people who access those services.On Friday afternoon, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock spoke with media via teleconference. He explained that the impending cuts, which have been given a July 1 deadline of sorts, are not a budget issue, but instead part of a process that began three years ago.“It’s a very emotional issue. Change is always difficult and change for persons with disability is particularly difficult,” he said.“And that’s why it’s necessary for us to ensure that we communicate as well as we can what is actually happening, why it’s happening and where we’re going.”The $42 million will be funnelled into the community living supports and employment supports categories of PDD instead. Hancock said that one of the tools used to determine what will be affected by the transition are Supports Intensity Scale assessments, which are 80% complete at this point. They involve discussions about needs with each individual and their families.He added that the July 1 date is not hard and fast and that anyone who hasn’t been assessed won’t be affected until that is complete.“This is not a funding issue, it’s a transformation issue. We will make sure that we have the funds available necessary to meet the clients needs,” Hancock said.He’s confident that these changes will create a better standard of living while being more efficient at the same time.“What we’ve found is that many people are getting community access services that are not necessarily consistent with community inclusion. So they’re going to day programs perhaps or going on day excursions as opposed to being introduced to an appropriate work or volunteer environment or some other way of being really truly included in the community,” Hancock said.However, while Haiste acknowledges the great work that the employment supports do for people, it can’t replace what community access provides in terms of quality of life outside of work.“When you actually work with these people you understand that so many of these people, it’s just not in their capacity. (…) If people are capable of working, they probably already are,” she said.Budget cut numbers for specific agencies haven’t been confirmed, but Haiste noted that the $45 million announced to up community agency wages won’t soften any budget blows.“It looks like they’re going to be paying staff higher wages, but they’re going to be given more people to support. With the SIS assessment not being a true measurement, they’re putting clients and the general population at risk. There are people out there who have behaviours and we need specialized staff for that,” she said.Devon Long was present for Friday’s protest in Grande Prairie. He is a guardian for his 32-year-old brother Curtis, who requires constant care from a support worker. Although he’s not happy about the cuts, he doesn’t think the provincial government is to blame and feels that the six boards that operate PDD throughout the province are at fault.“These guys at the top of PDD don’t want to take a pay cut. They want to continue to drive their Mercedes and don’t want to lose their pay, so they’re cutting the little people from the very bottom,” he said.“PDD is not taking the drop at the top, they’re taking it from down here and unfortunately it affects a lot of people.”Hancock said that government is currently also looking at a possible restructuring of the PDD boards, but at this time, the current transition isn’t about saving money and that no one should be afraid or anxious about loosing support services.“If it is successful and we achieve what we say we are going to do, people will see that it has value. I will be more than happy to be politically responsible for the decisions I make in due course, but what we’re trying to do is the right thing for the right reason,” he said.On a more local level, Haiste worries these changes will fracture the support system even further and the agencies operating in Grande Prairie, along with their clients, will suffer.“If they do these cutbacks, in two years or three years time, we’ll all be working with the homeless initiative, because so many of these people will fall through the cracks.”[email protected]Read at the Daily Herald Tribune Grande Prairie.