What is Self-Direction?


At the 14Y, we proudly welcome community members of all abilities. For International Day for Persons with Disabilities on December 3, Cayle White, the 14Y’s Benefits Coordinator, is sharing her expertise on applying for benefits through New York State’s Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).

For those considering applying to the OPWDD for funding and support, there are a few options to consider. There are two ways of using the budget that is allocated to you:

  • The traditional agency model, where people choose to receive services and classes from staff who are employed by agencies.
  • The Self-Direction model, where the person diagnosed with a disability is given a budget to create a personalized program.

Which choice is right for your family? That becomes clearer when you evaluate the personality and priorities of the person with a disability and their family. To help you understand your options, I’ll be explaining the Self-Direction model, and the pros and cons of Self-Direction as compared to the agency model.

What is Self-Direction?

In both the agency model and the Self-Direction model, the OPWDD helps the person with a disability create a “Lifeplan” based on interviews conducted with them and input from their immediate circle of support, which can include caregivers, parents, clinicians and friends. Self-Direction offers the person with a disability the opportunity to work with a broker to help them design a program that’s right for them.

The budget for the Lifeplan can be used in several ways, including paying for classes and activities. Sometimes subsidies for rent or personal items are covered if they are deemed necessary for the person to achieve the goals in their Lifeplan. Sometimes, hybrid models are recommended, meaning the person with a disability can also take part in classes or housing benefits offered by agencies.

What’s the difference between Self-Direction and the agency model?

Both the agency model and Self-Direction put the needs and goals of the person with a disability at the center of the plan. The major difference between them is that with Self-Direction, the person administering the budget — for example, or a parent or caregiver — is responsible for designing and scheduling the program, as well as for hiring employees for jobs highlighted in the Lifeplan.

For some people, it can be extremely daunting to manage the financial aspect of Self-Direction. The person managing the plan has to record and provide proof of every expense – and they often must pay out of pocket for expenses and then file for reimbursement. (In most cases, they’ll be reimbursed within a few weeks.)

On the other hand, with the agency model, an agency employee is paid by the agency they work for, and they look after the related paperwork. The care manager at the Care Coordination Organization will schedule the various aspects of the program based on what’s appropriate and accessible for the person with a disability.

If someone is accustomed to organizing their relative’s daily life affairs, then they should be able to set up a spread sheet to track their eligible expenses. There are many examples of families who have successfully managed their Self-Direction budgets and have been happy with the increased level of flexibility that this option affords them.

Why choose Self-Direction?

A common complaint about the agency model is that agency employees vary in quality and may have limited availability. For example, Day Habilitation programs (agency programs designed to support specific social and vocational needs for a person with a disability) can have long wait lists for spaces, and housing options can be in very short supply.

For many people, Self-Direction is an opportunity to create a program that is tailor-made to their specific needs, and to pick the best possible professional support network to work with.

You can learn more about Self-Direction at the OPWDD website. If you are interested in seeking Self-Direction services for a loved one, please reach out to me at CWhite@14StreetY.org to set up a time to discuss your needs.