Will Disability Advocates Force a “Fundamental Alteration” to States’ Treatment of the Mentally Ill?

Edward J. Rao, Topics Chair, Staff Writer           

         On September 8, a federal judge for the Eastern District of New York ruled that New York State violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide housing and services “in the most integrated setting” to nearly 4,300 individuals currently living in “Adult Homes” under the supervision of the state.[1]  The 210-page opinion, authored by United States District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, stated that the “integration mandate” of both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act was violated when individuals who could otherwise be thriving in supported housing, offering them most all of the amenities of their nondisabled peers, languished in Adult Homes, which the Court likened to “de facto institutions and satellite mental institutions.”[2]

            As reported by the New York Times on September 8, the ruling appears “likely to affect similar cases in other states.”[3]  The suit was filed by Disability Advocates, Inc., an organization aimed at protecting the rights of people with disabilities.[4]  The named defendants included New York Governor David Paterson, as well as the commissioners of the New York Department of Heath and the New York Department of Mental Health, respectively.  At the core of plaintiff’s argument was the notion that by not enabling residents to “interact[] to the fullest extent possible with nondisabled persons[,]” New York’s services ran afoul of the United States Supreme Court’s mandate in the landmark disability rights case Olmstead v. L.C. By Zimring.[5]  The Court agreed, holding that:

          Supported housing is an integrated, community-based setting that enables interaction with nondisabled persons to the fullest extent possible. People who live in supported housing have the autonomy to live and participate in their communities in essentially the same ways as people without disabilities. Simply put, residents of supported housing are not defined by the setting in which they receive services. Residents of supported housing have far greater opportunities to interact with nondisabled persons and be integrated into the larger community.[6]

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