HISTORY & ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Ability Network, Inc. was created and incorporated in 1990 by Leslie Elpers when Missouri First Steps became a pilot program. First Steps was Missouri’s response to Part H (now called Part C) of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) which became part of the law with its reauthorization in 1986.
However, Ability Network’s story did not begin there. Leslie had two older brothers who had severe disabilities in the 1950s. This was a very difficult time for families who had children with disabilities, as there were little or no services or supports available. So, at an incredibly young age, Leslie became passionate about children with disabilities and the pain and struggles their families experienced.
During undergraduate and graduate school, Leslie was very active in a “radical” national organization called YARC or “Youth Association for Retarded Citizens”. Leslie says it felt like being part of a small national movement or revolution of young people who promoted the civil rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities. “We were light years ahead of society, and advocated for social movements such as normalization, deinstitutionalization, and humanization.” Leslie began to witness new attitudes and perceptions emerging as well as new legislation and programs.
So early in 1990, with the creation of Missouri First Steps, Leslie saw a need to locate talented, knowledgeable and passionate professionals who could provide services in various geographic areas of need.
In August 1990, the company became incorporated and began with 12 therapists. Because Leslie was targeting unserved and underserved areas throughout the state, it was logistically impossible to have a center-based program. Therefore, all Ability Network providers went into family homes. Little did she know she was on the cutting edge of providing services in the child’s “natural environment”, something that was built into legislation with the reauthorization IDEA in 1997.
Shortly after that, Leslie wrote and was awarded the Natural Environment Enhancement Grant offered by Missouri First Steps. With this $30,000 grant, Ability Network was able to disseminate books and information to its providers (and families) throughout Missouri since computers and the internet were not widely used or available at the time. In 2002, Leslie was appointed by Governor Bob Holden to serve on the State Interagency Coordinating Council as a Provider Representative and served for two additional terms, plus a fourth term as an alternate. The SICC’s purpose is to advise and assist DESE in the responsibilities of First Steps. This gave Leslie the opportunity to have a voice, particularly regarding the difficulties that occur with rural service delivery. Recruiting and retaining providers in remote areas was difficult as many providers had to travel long distances to family homes. At that time, Leslie was the only Provider Member on the SICC who represented rural Missouri. The other Provider Members lived and worked in metropolitan areas. In 2005, Leslie 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 several years of discussion, DESE finally 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 and on those families who lived in remote areas.
Ability Network, Inc. has continued to grow over the years, and currently has over 325 First Steps providers plus additional providers who fulfill contracts with many school districts, State Schools for the Severely Disabled, Variety Kids, and other entities. Ability Network’s providers serve in all of Missouri’s 114 counties plus St. Louis city. Ability Network has presented at many conferences and participated in job fairs. Leslie and her staff have also hosted MPACT training and other training, such as the Beckman Oral Motor Course. Plans for the first statewide conference for early interventionists have been planned but put on hold temporarily due to the pandemic.
Ability Network providers have said they feel a sense of “community” and family even though they live in all different areas of Missouri. The staff works hard to make this happen through many ways such as, holding Zoom Socials and hosting a very active closed Facebook group where great discussions occur, sometimes on a daily basis.
Leslie’s vision and niche in this industry have provided thousands of jobs throughout Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Ability Network has many more goals to accomplish. We are very thankful to our current and previous providers for coming along for the ride and being a part of this vision!