Nothing About Us Without Us

by Charlie Carr, Former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission

ADA2The international disability community paused to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Tuesday, July 28 in Washington DC. More than 1000 people marched in the streets for over a mile and a half to the Capitol. In heat well into the 90s, the long procession shouted “The people united will never be defeated” and “Our homes, not nursing homes.” The procession sprawled back for a quarter of a mile. It was the largest demonstration of people with disabilities in one place ever.

Since the passage of the ADA, life for people with all types of disabilities has markedly improved but not without a struggle. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA guarantees civil rights to people with all disabilities but until the law was tested in courts throughout the country it was just words on paper. Little by little case law upheld the Act by ruling against blatant employment, access, and communication discrimination. In 1999 the state of Georgia, which had denied two women with intellectual disabilities the right to move out of an institution into the community was handed a crushing defeat in the famous Olmstead vs. L.C and E.W. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the state could not enforce institutionalization under Title II of the ADA and that the state had to pay for them to live in the least restrictive environment. This famous decision changed forever the way people with disabilities live.

The Olmstead decision sparked numerous lawsuits around the country, including Massachusetts, and thousands of people with significant disabilities have moved out of hospitals and nursing homes into the community with the state paying for housing and Long Term Services and Supports. The Rolland and Ricci lawsuits against the Commonwealth allowed people with Intellectual and Developmental disabilities to leave state hospitals and created housing and services to support them in the community.

All people with disabilities are beneficiaries of the ADA and we must be vigilant to keep it strong and continue to enforce it whenever we as a community encounter a violation. For those of you old enough to remember, not that long ago, most people with disabilities who didn’t have family support were locked away in institutions like Fernald, North Hampton, Danvers and others. We can never rely on the goodwill of policymakers and state officials because, frankly, it’s easier to be out of sight and out of mind.

After the ADA March, many people fanned out across the House and Senate office buildings to remind their legislators that we wouldn’t tolerate any rollbacks and in fact, a new piece of legislation called the Community Integration Act will soon be filed and will lay out a coordinated and potentially powerful companion to the ADA which will coordinate federal bureaucracies and resources to ensure that the piecemeal work of these entities is done in a comprehensive manner with a civil rights focus. There is much work to do and young leaders have to step up and carry the mantle over the next 25 years until we are free.

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