Bernie Franks-Ongoy

Realizing Olmstead’s promise of integration


To promote the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities), we must act thoughtfully and decisively.

Fifteen years ago, on June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision fundamentally changing the lives of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who had both been languishing in an institution for years after their initial treatment ended. Lois and Elaine filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for release from a Georgia facility.

The Court ruled in their favor and, in doing so, affirmed a constitutional right to self-determination for Lois and Elaine and paved the way for other Americans with disabilities to live outside of institutions, opening avenues and opportunities to enhance our communities and our lives.

Olmstead’s promise of integration

The U. S. Supreme Court ruled that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities cannot be unnecessarily segregated and must receive services in the most integrated setting possible.

Fifteen years after the Olmstead decision, Montana struggles to make good on the promise of integration and the implementation of practices and policies that reflect the core principles of self-determination and inclusion.

To promote the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities), we must act thoughtfully and decisively. As we prepare for the 2015 Montana legislative session, we have that opportunity.

Integration mandate

An interim legislative committee (Children, Families, Health and Human Services) is studying Montana’s institutions now. The committee must ask whether there are people living in Montana Development Center (MDC) or Montana State Hospital, for instance, who are ready and able to live in the community. How can we accommodate their transition to the community without fundamentally altering the programs at state institutions? This question is the sum and substance of the Olmstead community integration mandate.

The need for supported employmentMany states have reached settlements (unfortunately, through litigation). In Texas, the parties reached an interim agreement that calls for the state to identify people who experience intellectual disabilities in nursing facilities, inform them about community options and help those who want to move to the community receive the services that they need there, instead of in a nursing facility. (Montana has such a facility in Lewistown). In addition, Texas is developing a system to help divert people from avoidable nursing facility admission.

An array of supports

The state of New York reached a settlement in which people who experience mental illness will be able to live in scattered-site supportive housing apartments rather than large adult group homes with over 120 residents.

The plan also calls for supported employment and community mental health services, such as care coordination, psychiatric rehabilitation, medication assistance, home health and personal care assistance, assertive community treatment and crisis stabilization.

The state of North Carolina reached a very similar agreement involving adults who experience mental health disability.

It is important to note that Olmstead’s community integration mandate has recently been applied to circumstances where people who experience disability are at risk of institutionalization due to a dearth of community-based services. One such case in Washington State resulted in a settlement involving intensive wrap-around services including care coordination, mobile crisis intervention, community-based treatment and a system for identifying at risk people.

With regard to employment, recent legal trends have high-lighted the need for supported employment in lieu of over reliance upon segregated settings such as sheltered workshops.

Earlier this year, the state of Rhode Island reached a settlement to resolve Department of Justice findings to this effect.

Thus, community integration has steadily improved on a national level since Olmstead. Lois Curtis, the plaintiff, now lives in a rented home with a roommate where she self-directs her services and works as an artist. She recently gave a painting to President Obama.

Montana lags behind in complying with Olmstead. For example, more than half of the residents at MDC are ready for community living, yet remain at MDC. More than half the patients at Montana State Hospital are ready for discharge, but the community mental health services and housing are not available.            \

This situation must change. We must seize the opportunity now in the hands of the legislature to strengthen our resolve and marshal the resources necessary to tear down the walls that keep people who experience disability away from the “mainstream of society, isolated and apart from the natural community where all of us live, work, and engage in life’s many activities.” Wyatt by and through Rawlins v. King, 773 F. Supp. 1508, 1512 (M.D. Ala. 1991).

This is the promise of community integration under Olmstead, and communities across the country are making it a reality for thousands of people just like Lois. Montana can and must do likewise.

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy is executive director of Disability Rights Montana. Bernie was raised by a mom with a disability and a dad who did not realize he was a feminist! She lived in an accessible house before the ADA was made into a law. Bernie has served as president of the National Disability Rights Network.  

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