22 years ago today, the Supreme Court decided Olmstead v. L.C., a landmark decision on the rights of people with disabilities. The Court ruled that people with disabilities have a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to live and receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs—that is, in their homes and communities instead of in segregated settings like institutions.
The Department of Justice continues to enforce the ADA and Olmstead, to stop unnecessary segregation and increase access to community-based services so more people have the opportunity to live fully integrated in their communities. For example, earlier this month, the department entered into a settlement agreement with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. A young man with intellectual disabilities (ID) had filed a complaint with the Justice Department, alleging that one of Maine’s community service programs imposed restrictions that placed him at serious risk of having to move from his own home to a congregate setting. The agreement, which resolves this complaint, will help ensure that Mainers with ID and autism can receive the personal assistance services they need in their own homes.
The department recognizes the critical role that community services play in preventing unnecessary institutionalization and criminal justice involvement. In April, the department concluded an investigation into Alameda County, California. On any given day in Alameda County, hundreds of people are institutionalized for lengthy stays at one of several large, locked psychiatric facilities or are hospitalized, while others are at serious risk of admission to institutions because of the county’s lack of community-based services. The investigation found that people with mental health disabilities in Alameda County cycle in and out of psychiatric institutions, as well as jails, because they cannot access services that would allow them to recover and participate in community life.
Since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead, progress has been made. But there is still much work to be done. The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that enforcing Olmstead is not only a matter of ensuring opportunities for independent living and full participation in society, but also of life and death. People living in nursing homes and other congregate facilities have been at particular risk of COVID-19 infection and death. Nearly one-third of all deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S.—over 184,000 people as of June 1, 2021—are linked to nursing homes and other similar facilities.
The department continues to make this work a priority. For example, implementation has begun on an agreement entered in December 2020 with the State of North Dakota to ensure that North Dakotans with disabilities are no longer unnecessarily institutionalized in nursing facilities. Under the agreement, North Dakota must expand services to individuals with physical disabilities in, or at risk of entering, a nursing facility to allow them to live in their homes. The state will provide these services to more than 2,500 people with disabilities, helping them to assess their options, decide where they would like to live, and arrange for community-based services. These services include assistance in finding accessible housing and home health aides to help with daily activities such as bathing and dressing. As part of the agreement, North Dakota will also increase access to community-service providers.
Providing services in home- and community-based settings instead of in congregate settings can satisfy the ADA and Olmstead. It can also reduce the risk that people with disabilities will disproportionately bear the devastating burden of the next public health crisis, as they have in this one.
People interested in finding out more about the ADA can call the toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD), or access the ADA website at http://www.ada.gov. To learn more about the department’s Olmstead work, visit http://www.ada.gov/olmstead.