On Monday, 15 years after a U.S. Supreme Court decision paved the way for some people with disabilities to move out of institutions and into community homes, advocates for Texans with disabilities called on state lawmakers to speed up that process here.
The anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C. – which advocates marked one day late with a press conference and cake – comes as Texas is weighing whether to close some of the state’s 13 living centers for people with mental disabilities. The Supreme Court held in Olmstead that institutionalizing a person with disabilities is discrimination if appropriate community-based services can be reasonably accommodated and the person doesn’t object to such a move.
The state’s Sunset Advisory Commission is set to meet Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss commission staffers’ recommendations to close the Austin State Supported Living Center and form a panel to choose five other centers to close. The state spends more than $600 million a year to operate the facilities, which are home to some 3,600 Texans.
“Fifteen years after Olmstead, it sort of begs the question: Why do we continue to do this?” asked Sarah Watkins, a board member of the Texas advocacy group Community Now!, which works to end what it sees as a bias in favor of institutions. Her remarks came at the press conference at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, where several dozen advocates gathered to celebrate Texans who have moved out of living centers and nursing homes.
“Our state is choosing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on services that not very many people want anymore,” Watkins added.
The debate over the state-supported living centers is an emotional and heated one. Susan Payne, president of an advocacy group called PART, which includes family members of residents of state-supported living centers, said that not all residents at living centers are capable of living in community homes. The group is fighting to keep all the institutions open.
“Texas should be proud we offer a wide array of services for people,” Payne said. “One shoe doesn’t fit all.”
More than 100,000 Texans are on waiting lists for community-based programs. No one is waiting to get into a state-supported living center.
Carol Carpenter, 38, couldn’t wait to leave the Austin State Supported Living Center. A living center resident since age 18, Carpenter moved last year into a group home, where she said she is happy.
“No more nasty food,” she said at the press conference. “No more yelling at me. I don’t want to go back.”
Payne said advocates calling for the institutions' closure are not looking at the entirety of Olmstead, which says that it would be inappropriate to move people out of institutions if they wouldn’t benefit from community care.
“They should read all of Olmstead, and not just the part that pertains to their agenda,” Payne said.
Gilad Edelman contributed to this report.