Ohio’s Developmental Disabilities chief John Martin leaves after more than a decade of changes

John Martin, director of the State Developmental Disabilities Department, takes a moment for a portrait in his Downtown office. Martin is retiring after 12 years. [Samantha Madar/Dispatch]

John Martin will retire next month after an unprecedented 12-year run as director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, serving under both Democratic and Republican governors.

More than a few times over the past decade, John Martin and Gary Tonks saw one of their meetings devolve — at least temporarily — into a shouting match.

“We’re both pretty passionate, and we yell at each other,” Tonks said. “We really yell.”

Tonks is executive director of the Arc of Ohio, the state’s oldest and largest advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Martin heads the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. The two have plenty to argue about.

“And we always leave each other’s office hugging,” Tonks said.

As Martin prepares to retire next month after an unprecedented 12-year run in the cabinet-level position, serving under both Democratic and Republican governors, Tonks and others say he managed to hold onto his ideals and good-guy likability while presiding over significant change at the agency. It oversees services to more than 90,000 Ohioans and administers an annual budget of about $3 billion in local, state and federal funds.

“What always impressed us is there have been several times where he has been what he calls insubordinate — when either the administration or the legislature wanted him to do things that he thought weren’t in the best interest of families,” Tonks said, and Martin refused.

The son of a Mennonite minister, Martin had long vowed that he’d quit government before compromising his beliefs. “And he’s kept that promise,” Tonks said.

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Which isn’t to say that all policy challenges have been fully, or happily, resolved.

Ohio, like most states around the nation, faces severe workforce problems in the disability services industry. The state is still embroiled in a complex federal lawsuit over where people with disabilities live and work. And there are kinks in a new system that uses electronic verification to track the visits of aides.

But the disabilities community is perhaps better positioned to address thorny issues because more people are involved in the discussions, said Carolyn Knight, executive director of the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council.

“John’s raised the bar totally for the participation of families and of people with disabilities — to be a part of the plan, whatever it’s going to be,” she said. “I love that.”

Knight said a big accomplishment under Martin’s leadership is the revamping of an unwieldy, years-long waiting list of people requesting one of the Medicaid waivers that pays for community-based services. The list had ballooned to 49,000 names, and officials said it no longer reflected a true accounting of those in need.

Some worried parents, for example, had begun putting their children’s names on the list at birth in case a waiver was needed in the future.

Martin, 66, has long understood the emotions that fly when families are striving to do what seems best for their loved ones. His 34-year-old son, Joel, has cerebral palsy and profound disabilities. Joel lives in a residential center in northwestern Ohio operated by Sunshine Inc., a Mennonite agency that Martin headed before former Gov. Ted Strickland tapped him to run the department.

“I like to think it’s helped make me a better administrator,” Martin said. “You come to appreciate, deeply appreciate, what families are going through.”

Gov. John Kasich opted to retain Martin, a former construction worker from upstate New York, through his two terms.

But for getting his hand caught in a cement mixer, and having a few fingers mangled, Martin might have kept to his blue-collar job decades ago. Instead, he went back to college and earned degrees in special education and psychology, working along the way in homes for people with developmental disabilities.

“That’s where I learned to change diapers and all that,” Martin said.

He and his wife, Sue, were in love with the field even before Joel — one of their three adult children — was born. Martin knew he was betting on a career that would be steeped not only in joy, but also passion and disagreement.

“I often draw the analogy to theology,” Martin said. “People have strong views of truth. It’s the same with our field: What’s the right way to do it?″

The lawsuit filed in 2016 by Disability Rights Ohio is one of relatively few lingering sore spots for Martin, who believes the state was making good progress before it was sued over access to community-based services. Under his tenure, he said, about 1,000 fewer Ohioans live in state-run developmental centers, there are 1,000 fewer in private residential centers, at least 24,000 more have a Medicaid waiver, and 3,000 more people have community jobs.

“And yet we get sued for not doing enough — I don’t get it,” Martin said. “What we’ve tried to do is honor choice. We don’t want to be eliminating any options.”

He also wishes he’d been able to do more to boost wages for workers who support Ohioans with disabilities. “I’ll worry about that,” he said.

But Martin feels good about many accomplishments, including the removal of the words “mental retardation” from state and county agency names. He’s especially pleased the state is embracing technology to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible.

Tonks will miss Martin as a colleague, sometimes-adversary and empathetic parent. He recalls one day telling the director about a man who was agonizing over decisions about his son, who, like Martin’s, has cerebral palsy. Martin told Tonks to bring him to his office.

“John was at his best with our organization talking as a dad,” Tonks said. “It meant the world to that man.”


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