A Ste. Genevieve company is making it possible for over 2,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities across Missouri to receive a variety of needed services. That company is Ability Network, Inc., which has a small administrative office across from Sirros on Merchant Street.
Ability Network is the largest and oldest contracting agency for Missouri First Steps, a state and federally funded program designed to provide early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities.
Ability Network has over 300 professionals working in all 114 Missouri counties which include physical and occupational therapists, speech pathologists, behavior specialists, teachers of blind and deaf, orientation and mobility specialists, social workers, counselors, dietitians and others. Although a large portion of what Ability Network does is through First Steps, the company also has contracts with State Schools for Severely Disabled, Department of Mental Health, Variety Kids, and many school districts throughout Missouri.
August 27, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Ability Network becoming incorporated. The company was created by Leslie Elpers in 1990 and has operated in this community ever since.
Elpers had two older brothers with severe disabilities in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a difficult time for families who had children with disabilities, as there were little or no services.
So, at a young age, Elpers became passionate about children with disabilities and the pain and difficulties their families went through. She received a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree specializing in severe disabilities. After 17 years of teaching at the State School for Severely Disabled, she left that position to pursue a career in severe behavior disorders for individuals with developmental disabilities in Jefferson County. At the same time, Missouri First Steps was just beginning as a pilot program.
Elpers saw a need to locate talented, knowledgeable and passionate professionals who could provide services in needed geographic areas. The company began with 12 therapists.
Initially, logistics demanded that Ability Network providers went into family homes. Little did Elpers know, she was on the cutting edge by providing services in the child’s “natural environment,” something that was built into the legislation with the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in 1997.
Shortly after that, Elpers wrote and was awarded one of three Natural Environment Enhancement Grants offered by First Steps. With this $30,000 grant, Ability Network was able to set up a resource library where books were mailed to Ability Network professionals since computers were not widely available. The grant also funded several other projects.
In 2002, Elpers was appointed by Governor Bob Holden to serve on the State Interagency Coordinating Council (SICC) as a provider representative and served for two additional terms. The SICC’s purpose is to advise and assist the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in the responsibilities of First Steps. This gave Elpers the opportunity to have a voice, particularly regarding difficulties that occur with rural service delivery. Recruiting and retaining providers in those areas was difficult as many had to travel long distances to homes.
In 2005, Elpers presented comprehensive data she collected from a survey of rural First Steps providers advocating that a travel incentive be paid for those who drive long distances to homes. After many meetings, DESE agreed that this was justified for those who drove 60 miles or more to see a child. This made a big impact on the program.