Lawsuit seeks community-based options for Ohio’s disabled

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A federal lawsuit filed Thursday claims Ohioans with intellectual and developmental disabilities are experiencing widespread segregation as they are forced to receive services in institutions due to a lack of community- or home-based options.

Disability Rights Ohio filed the lawsuit on behalf of six people who the group says are, or are at risk of being, “needlessly institutionalized” because of barriers to more integrated residential, employment or day services.

The suit seeks class-action status for about 27,800 disabled people in similar situations.

According to the state, about 6,400 disabled Ohioans live in so-called intermediate care facilities, which have eight beds or more. Providers are responsible for all aspects of the person’s care, including medical needs, transportation and habilitation.

“Most have little or no contact with their non-disabled peers,” the suit alleges. “Their lives are highly regimented and controlled, with little privacy, independence, or personal autonomy.”

Republican Gov. John Kasich and several state agencies’ directors are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The state calls the basis of the lawsuit inaccurate, and says individuals who would like to leave institutionalize settings now have an opportunity to do so.

John Martin, director of the state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities, said a number of system improvements are in the works, including a nearly $300 million investment in the latest budget to expand community-based options for people with developmental disabilities and their families. The money will support more than 1,200 waiver options for people who are either in the facilities and want to leave, or who would have no choice without the waiver but to go to the facilities.

“We need to give the current budget a chance to work,” Martin said in an interview ahead of the lawsuit’s filing. “It represents significant change.”

Disability Rights Ohio says many residents in intermediate care facilities would prefer to live in home- or community-based settings, but they face long and slow-moving waitlists. The group says 13 years is the median wait time for residents to get a waiver for the home- or community-based services they would need to move out.

This lack of access to more integrated settings in society violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the disability rights group said.

The plaintiffs want the court to order the state to prevent what it calls “unnecessary institutionalization and discriminatory segregation” and provide people with more community-based services.

Martin said the state is implementing other changes, including the addition of nursing services so people with waivers can get the medical care they need.

Still, the disability rights group contends the state’s recent actions fall short of what’s needed to stymie segregation within Ohio’s developmental disabilities system. Advocates say Ohio needs to change the way it funds programs and services so people can work, pursue social activities and get the care they need with the support they need where they want it.

The group says it wants people with disabilities to have what they need to feel safe and not move before they are ready.

“We understand that right now there’s not a capacity in the system to move people out,” said Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, advocacy director for Disability Rights Ohio. “We want supports to be built up.”

The plaintiffs include Nathan Narowitz, a 24-year-old North Ridgeville resident, who appeared with his mother at a Columbus news conference announcing the lawsuit.

Jeannine Narowitz said her son is non-verbal, has the mind of an 8-year-old and requires 24-hour supervision. She said she and her husband worry about their continued ability to provide adequate care for their son at home, and they have been on a waiting list for community-based waiver services for almost four years.

“We want choices for Nate,” she said.