Today, providers who serve persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) have the privilege of caring for thousands of children and adults with varying levels of disability, including autism, brain injury and other complex behavioral and medical needs. But 40 years ago, these individuals were isolated and effectively hidden away from society. Thanks to advancements like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead Decision of 1999, those with I/DD now enjoy greater freedoms and more opportunities.
The ADA’s groundbreaking protections against discrimination have been copied around the world. Because of this law, the disabled have greater access to housing, employment, education and public spaces. The Olmstead Decision enhanced these protections by outlawing unjustified segregation based on disability and mandating that states provide community-based services under Medicaid when appropriate. The driving force behind both these reforms is the idea that every American, regardless of disability, should have the right to decide how they want to live, work, and spend their time. Everyone agrees the old policy of forcing people into institutions was wrong and discriminatory. Today, there is a trend toward greater community integration, and in fact, living in the community is often a requirement for drawing down federal funding.
While these policies may be well-intentioned, many still fail to respect people’s basic right to choose where they live and work. For example, we are seeing rules that unnecessarily restrict the number of individuals with I/DD who can live in the same building or community. There are other rules intended to defund sheltered workshops, even though many people with I/DD enjoy these jobs and have held them for a long time. States have even gone as far as to dictate the percentage of time persons with I/DD must spend outside their home and whom they can spend that time with. Is this any less discriminatory? Doesn’t this also violate the principles Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg laid down in Olmstead?
Seniors often choose to live in planned developments or over 55 communities with other older adults. Imagine what would happen if the government told these people, “there are too many seniors living in this building. You have to move.” Sounds crazy, right? But, this is exactly what states are saying to individuals with I/DD. No other segment of society is treated in such a way, and more importantly, no other group would tolerate these types of restrictions.
Our policy approach needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the immense diversity within the I/DD population. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to their needs. The best way to preserve choice is to honor the decisions made by those with I/DD, and for those who lack the mental capacity to choose, we must respect the decisions made by their families and caregivers. We believe this is what the ADA and the Olmstead decision intended, and this is what we stand for.
Tine Hansen-Turton is president and CEO of Woods Services and a member of the Inquirer’s Health Advisory Panel. Brian Valdez is a lawyer and co-founder of People for Liberty, Access, Choice & Equality, a group that champions freedom of choice for the disabled and their family members.