Olmstead Decision Makes a World of Difference

We're surrounded by anniversaries. Some give us cause to celebrate like the Fourth of July while others are sad remembrances such as 9/11. And then again there are anniversaries that come and go without much notice such as the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision.

On June 22, 1999 (15 years ago), the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Olmstead v. L.C., ruling that "unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination" and reaffirming the rights of persons with disabilities to live in the community, in “the least restrictive setting.” Across America, the fifty states were suddenly faced with a new reality that called for an end to the mindless warehousing of persons with disabilities and elders in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

The Olmstead decision sent a clear message to all of us: there’s no place like home.  For many people with disabilities this was no surprise, however for older Americans it was a wake-up call that they have to right to go home too. Our perceptions of the "Golden Years" changed and the unspoken expectation that elders should be put away in nursing homes after a certain age became archaic. An AARP survey points out that today more than 90% of older Americans do not want to reside in nursing homes.

“Community first” is good for the bottom line, too. In these austere times it's the fiscally responsible action to take. After all the state pays much more to keep most individuals in a nursing home then it does to keep someone at home.

Sadly, this year’s anniversary will remind us – disabled, elders, their families, and advocates – that while progress has been made, in Massachusetts and around the country, there is still a long way to go. Here in the Bay State, 9,000 people are stuck in facilities and want to get out. Getting them out falls to places like Stavros and Highland Valley Elder Service, and it’s hardly ever easy. Despite the expansion of community-based programs and the evolution of a person-first perspective among health care professionals, there are still significant barriers to making the Olmstead dream a reality.

The biggest of these is the availability of affordable, accessible housing. If you want to give people with disabilities and older Americans choices, you can support their civil rights by contacting your state legislators to find what he/she is doing to provide more affordable, accessible housing in the community. It could be new construction, or funding rehabilitation of existing housing, or expanding state-funded rental vouchers. The best Olmstead anniversary present we can give is to remind our legislators that there’s no place like home – for everybody.

Joseph Tringali, Director of Services/Stavros