A chance to support the rights of elderly

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We are making progress, but we are still trying to figure it out decades later.

Twenty years ago, in June 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. LC that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities violated their rights guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA, which was signed into law nine years earlier on July 26, 1990, established the civil rights of people with disabilities and helped them be more included at work and in the community. The Olmstead decision sent a clear message that people with disabilities are entitled to work, live and participate in communities of their choice.

The challenge for most people with disabilities is that the community-based services and supports they need to ensure participation are sometimes limited or non-existent. You can’t choose something that doesn’t exist.

On the 20th anniversary of the Olmstead ruling, and nearly 30 years after the ADA was passed, our federal and state policies are still trying to catch up with these landmark decisions. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Congress introduced the Disability Integration Act, or DIA. The DIA guarantees that people with disabilities can choose the long-term services and supports they need to work, live and participate in the community.

For example, a Montanan who chooses to live in her family home may need help dressing and require transportation to and from her job. The DIA guarantees she can get that assistance. For people living in their homes who need help with daily living activities such as eating, bathing, dressing or basic housekeeping, the DIA makes sure they can choose how and where services and supports are provided.

Too often, the only way people can get support is if they move into a nursing home or similar group living arrangement that segregates people with significant needs from people who don’t. The services and supports outlined in the DIA enables people to live safely and with dignity in the environment THEY choose.

This is important in Montana. Our state is forecasted to be one of the eight “oldest” by 2030 ; about one in four Montanans will be 65 or older in 11 years.

As we age, our physical and mental abilities may fade and most of us “age” into disability. People who need assistance, whether due to age or disability, require services and supports to remain in their homes and participate in their communities. That is what the DIA protects—the right to receive support at home or in an integrated home setting, not in a nursing home.

The estimated 200,000 Montanans over age 65 and the estimated 100,000 Montanans with disabilities under age 65 are fortunate that our representatives in Washington, DC value freedom, choice and community and want to make sure Montanans have full access to the services and supports guaranteed them by U.S. law.

Democratic senator Jon Tester was an original co-sponsor of the DIA when it was introduced to Congress in January. In early June, Rep. Greg Gianforte joined 16 other Republicans to co-sponsor the DIA.

It is not clear if this bill will become law. But if it does, the DIA has the potential to more fully support the rights of the elderly and those with disabilities who are sometimes relegated to the shadows of our communities. The Disability Integration Act is another step forward to ensure all Montanans, and all Americans, have the right to fully and freely work, live and participate in the communities of their choice.

— Martin Blair, Ph.D., is executive director of the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana.

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