Op-ed: Don't challenge the disability community's Brown v. Board of Education
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court gave disabled Americans their Brown v. Board of Education. Gov. Chris Gregoire may be about to take it away, writes guest columnist Ari Ne'eman.
Special to The Times
SHORTLY after being sworn in as the Obama administration's assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez announced that segregating people with disabilities in institutions was as wrong as segregating African-American children in inferior schools.
At the time he was speaking, it had been a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1999 ruling Olmstead v. L.C, which found unnecessary institutionalization a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Most civil-rights advocates considered Olmstead settled law. After all, the decision was and is the disability community's Brown v. Board of Education. Who would ever want to take that away? Perez's comments represented a powerful moral statement, coming from the nation's top civil-rights official. Yet, just three years later, Olmstead is potentially under attack -- from none other than Washington state's Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Last week, the Washington state chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network joined forces with the Seattle-based Alliance of People with Disabilities to hold a news conference urging the governor not to appeal M.R. v. Dreyfus to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The M.R. case began in 2010 when Washington residents with disabilities brought suit to block a 10 percent cut in the in-home care that enables them to stay out of institutions and in their own communities. Relying on the Olmstead precedent, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Actmandated that the plaintiffs receive the support they needed.
Now, the Gregoire administration is considering appealing the 9th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority is likely to severely weaken, or even eliminate Olmstead, a loss which would devastate the rights of all Americans with disabilities.
The Olmstead decision was narrowly decided back in 1999 and not all of the justices who stood with the majority are still on the court. Furthermore, the current court has proved itself hostile to the Medicaid program. Despite upholding most of the Affordable Care Act, the court went out of its way to strike down the act's required expansion of Medicaid to cover more low-income Americans.
That's why groups ranging from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund to the Service Employees International Union are standing united in urging the Gregoire administration to settle the case rather than risk the catastrophic impact of a Supreme Court review.
The impact of this drama goes far beyond Washington. In many states, Olmstead is the only thing preventing draconian budget cuts that could force thousands of disabled and elderly Americans out of their homes and into institutions. Furthermore, under Assistant Attorney General Perez's leadership, the Justice Department has used the Olmstead decision to make the case for deinstitutionalization and community-employment opportunities for people with disabilities across the country.
All that could be lost if Gov. Gregoire gives a more conservative Supreme Court another chance to turn back the clock on our basic rights.
Gregoire recently returned from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. She heard former President Clinton affirm that, " 'We're all in this together' is a far better philosophy than, 'You're on your own.' "Don't leave Americans with disabilities to fend for ourselves.
Ari Ne'eman is president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on Disability.