Forced Institutionalization of People With Disabilities Is Illegal

The U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., found recently that a quadriplegic woman must be provided with services allowing her to stay in her home and not be institutionalized. The civil-rights ruling reinforces a landmark case that prevents isolation and stigmatization of people with disabilities.

The U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., ruled recently that Michele Haddad must be provided with services that will allow her to stay in her home. Haddad, who has a spinal-cord injury caused by a motorcycle accident with a drunk driver three years ago, was at risk of being forced into a nursing home because of changes in her caregiver situation. Although the 49-year-old woman has been on the waiting list for Medicaid community-based waiver services for two years and had alerted the state of her need, she was told that the requested services would only be available if she was admitted to a nursing home for 60 days.

In Haddad v. Arnold, the plaintiff argued that she would suffer irreparable harm if forced to enter a nursing home.

The court agreed, ordering the state to offer Haddad community-based services. The reason: Segregating people with disabilities is a form of discrimination, as found in Olmstead v. L.C. This landmark disability-rights decision determined that isolating people with disabilities in institutional settings deprives them of the opportunity to participate in their communities, interact with individuals who don't have disabilities and make daily choices. The ruling also acknowledged that unnecessary institutionalization stigmatizes people with disabilities.

The Olmstead decision, which marks its 11th anniversary this week, is not the first such case that the U.S Department of Justice has filed briefs. The DOJ is involved in several other cases in Illinois and New Jersey, as part of its mission to end discrimination against people with disabilities.

"In the Olmstead case, the court recognized that the unnecessary segregation of individuals with disabilities stigmatizes those individuals as unworthy of participation in community life," stated Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez. "By supporting Ms. Haddad in this case, we seek to ensure that individuals with disabilities can receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate, where they can participate in their communities, interact with individuals who do not have disabilities and make their own day-to-day choices."

The Department of Justice's involvement in these cases reinforce the Obama administration's national efforts to protect the rights of all people.

"This work is a priority for the Civil Rights Division, and we are committed to aggressive enforcement of Olmstead so that we can build upon progress made over the last 11 years," said Perez earlier this week. "But our work is only one piece of a larger, administration-wide effort to make the promise of Olmstead a reality for individuals with disabilities nationwide. Real reform requires a holistic approach. As a lifelong public servant, I recognize that the most vexing problems a government faces are those that require unprecedented interagency collaboration and coordination. The unnecessary and illegal institutionalization of individuals with disabilities who would be better served, and better able to contribute to their communities, if they were provided services in integrated settings, is one of those problems."

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