Profile: Once Advocated for Self, Now for All NJ Residents with Disabilities

Lilo H. Stainton | February 22, 2017 | Profiles
Joseph M. Amoroso, director of the New Jersey Division of Disability Services, planned to work in finance but got waylaid

Joseph M. Amoroso, director of the New Jersey Division of Disability Services
Name: Joseph M. Amoroso

Hometown: Mount Laurel

Family: Amoroso lives with his fianceé and partner of 19 years. Last year the couple started hosting foster children — providing a home to 11 in that first year — and they are now seeking to adopt. “It’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

Public role: As director of the Division of Disability Services within the Department of Human Services, Amoroso oversees a staff of 43 and a budget of $60 million. The office serves as the single entry point for individuals and families seeking information on the services available to residents with disabilities — from assisted technology to healthcare programs to transportation assets. It also seeks to coordinate the work of local, county, and state agencies working in this field.

Amoroso started with the DDS 18 years ago, shortly after it was founded, and was hired as its first administrator of Information and Assistant Services — the team responsible for fielding direct calls from the public. The group now gets some 2,000 calls a month and has logged more than 250,000 requests over the years. The service is one of his proudest achievements at the division. He has served as director for the past eight years.

’Top-notch organization’: “The concept of this division was all theoretical” when we started, Amoroso said. “We grew a top-notch organization” that is now emulated elsewhere, he noted, adding: “Other states are now copying off my stuff!”

The DDS operates a toll-free number for this service, 1-888-285-3036, during regular business hours. The division helps provide or coordinate services for some 25,000 adults and 15,000 children with disabilities.

Growing up in Bergen County: Amoroso, who has cerebral palsy and now uses a wheelchair, grew up in Bergen County. He started at a specialized school but was “mainstreamed” into the Rutherford public school system in fifth grade. If he was starting out today, he most likely would have gone straight to public school. “Inclusion is a lot more understood now,” he said.

Amoroso planned to go into finance, with a job on Wall Street or at a bank, and had hoped to attend Rutgers University or Seton Hall. But when visiting Rutgers with his father, he was struck by the size of the campus and concerned it would take too much time just to navigate between classes — and leave no space for extracurricular activities.

Having taken a full day off work and wanting to make the most of it, his father convinced him to visit Montclair State University after leaving Rutgers. “I was able to make it across the campus on crutches in 40 minutes,” Amoroso said. He realized the smaller campus size would give him greater opportunities. “It hit me like a bolt of lightning.”

‘Be proud’: Amoroso said he was always taught to “be proud of my disability; the only thing I wasn’t going to win was a footrace.” He had always been an advocate for himself and it was the same at Montclair, where he became known for his work to make the campus more accessible to disabled students.

Months before Amoroso was set to graduate, the new vice president of student life approached him in the cafeteria, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could join him. “I paled — I thought I was getting suspended,” Amoroso said. But instead, the VP wanted his input on disability services. The lunch meeting led to an office meeting, which led to a job as the school’s first coordinator of Services for Students with Disabilities, and eventually a graduate school degree in counseling, human services, and guidance.

“It’s something I never thought about doing professionally,” Amoroso said. “The second we hung out a sign,” he said, “We were able to attract kids coming in.”

All about access: Eventually, Amoroso joined DIAL, a nonprofit in North Jersey that is part of a network of state-monitored Centers for Independent Living, which help disabled residents outline their goals and connect with the services they need to become independent. He succeeded in integrating aspects of the program with Montclair State, enabling disabled individuals to have new access to education and providing students — both disabled and not — a unique experience.

A few years later, Amoroso joined the DDS. “I feel fortunate to come to work every day,” he said.