Freedom to Choose

Senator Tom Harkin - Three images of Sen Harkin's face smiling at present and younger times in his career.FULFILLING THE PROMISE OF COMMUNITY LIVING

Dear ABILITY readers,

At a recent roundtable of the Senate HELP Committee, Emmanuel Smith described the challenges he faced growing up in Iowa with brittle bone disease. All his life, he feared that if he were to incur an injury, it would limit his independence and force him into a nursing home.

The freedom to choose home and community-based services as an alternative to nursing homes and other institutional settings is critically important for Emmanuel and millions of Americans who live with disabilities. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Olmstead 15 years ago, full integration in society—a central tenet of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—was resoundingly reaffirmed.

With the passage of the ADA 24 years ago, and the Olmstead decision, which followed less than a decade later, our responsibility to people with disabilities is clear: We must ensure that they are provided with the choice to live in their own communities, and get the necessary support to do so.

When Congress passed the ADA, we described the segregation of people with disabilities as a serious and pervasive form of discrimination. In fact, the ADA clearly states that no person with a disability “shall, on the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any public entity.”

One of the most important aspects of the ADA is the “integration mandate.” In Olmstead, the Court ruled that the unnecessary segregation of individuals with disabilities in institutions was a violation of that mandate. Simply put, preventing people with disabilities from living in the community constituted discrimination and a violation of civil rights. Indeed, the Court wrote that such segregation not only isolates people with disabilities, it also “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that [they] are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.”

Study after study has shown that home and community based care are not only what people want, but ...
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Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

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