Olmstead and the American Disabilities Act

written by Lisa Stand
July 31, 2012

In his highlights of the themes of our 2012 National Conference, our Vice President Steve Berg touched on the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in its 1999 Olmstead decision.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Act requires states to grant people with disabilities the choice of where to live, and that states must avoid placing them in living situations that segregate them from the rest of society. The Olmstead decision, and a number of cases that followed, spoke specifically about state Medicaid programs. However, the Olmstead decision is about “community integration” broadly, and has continues to shape the ways in which state programs and services promote the rights of  people with disabilities, particularly their right to live in the least restrictive settings of their choice.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has an interest in upholding Olmsteadprinciples, as it does all federal fair housing provisions. While HUD’s purview may raise thorny questions about what kinds of housing are suitable for disabled people who are experiencing homelessness, an important, practical implication of the Olmstead decision is that it makes more resources available to house people who are experiencing chronic homelessness.

Recently, HUD published guidance about the role of public housing agencies (PHAs) in reducing inappropriate institutionalization of persons with disabilities. It is worth reading the entire document, for it gives needed context to local decision-making that can affect plans to end chronic homelessness.

For example, “persons at serious risk of institutionalization” can be included, along with those who are exiting institutions, in a local preference providing subsidies for people with disabilities. The guidance describes how such a preference can work, and offers other examples of actions a PHA can take to leverage resources and programs to realize Olmstead goals.

When states and localities make Olmstead decisions that affect mainstream housing and services programs, homeless service advocates should be involved. Participation in Delaware, for instance, resulted in people experiencing chronic homelessness being included among other groups of persons with disabilities as a target population.

Here are some ways advocates can connect with Olmstead efforts:

  • Learn more about the history of the ADA and Olmstead in your state. Most states have developed ADA compliance plans, with stakeholder consensus. The National Center for Personal Attendant Services tracks Olmstead matters, and updates state-specific plan information. To find these resources, search Olmstead on the main page. Also, the web-based resource, HCBS Clearinghouse, offers information and tools for state Medicaid reform.
  • Reach out to statewide disability groups, including state affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Look for ways to collaborate on ADA and Olmstead enforcement.
  • Advocate for people who are chronically homeless within the diverse communities of people with disabilities people in your state and locality. Describe the systems of care and proven interventions for homeless people, the role of permanent supportive housing, and collaborative possibilities.

Additional Resources

U.S. Department of Justice website dedicated to Olmstead.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights, Olmstead website.

Image Courtesy of Kate Mereand-Sinha