Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (DHS) is the regulatory agency that provides support to people with disabilities. In other words, they control the money and enforce the parameters for how people with disabilities will live. If we the public don’t like those parameters, it is up to us to change them. The question is, “How do we do that?” We must approach change through legal avenues such as asking our legislators for mandated reform, or initiating lawsuits.
I strongly disagree with DHS Commissioner Piper’s reference in her August 22, 2016 Star Tribune Op-ed Counterpoint article reprinted in last month’s Access Press, that, “It is unfortunate that we now must divert precious resources meant for people living with disabilities to defend lawsuits.” This, in my mind, is circular thinking. If the resources were allocated in the first place, there would be no need for lawsuits. Lawsuits, like the one currently going forward from the Disability Law Center regarding DHS segregating people in group homes, are not frivolous or unfortunate; they are necessary responses to a lack of proactive programming and funding on the part of Minnesota legislators, lawmakers and DHS.
Currently our state faces a number of, shall we say, untenable parameters being maintained by legal decree and DHS. These include below poverty level income for people with disabilities, poverty level income for direct support staff working with people with disabilities, policies that restrict an individual’s ability to live in the community, and a lack of living and employment options that meet the needs of the wide spectrum of disabilities served in our state.
As an outsider looking in, one might view our state as an oligarchy that supports “one size fits all models” like the four-person group home. We are a state that continues to keep people with disabilities living in deep poverty, a state that offers a very limited selection of choices for individuals with disabilities and a state that continues to equivocate when it comes to real change.
Piper invites us to “pull together in the same direction” to support people with disabilities. We in the greater disability community are “pulled together,” and we are weary of what feels like an old and wellworn litany on our part of “things must change.” Often DHS will tell us they support needed change, but then hedge, throwing their hands up and saying their systems are just too complicated to accommodate a change; it would be cost-prohibitive and take years and years to implement.
However, change is a necessity and governmental systems should not be a roadblock to improving services. Advocacy efforts will continue through the avenues available, including lawsuits and legislation. At the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities we have a new set of policy priorities for the 2017 Minnesota Legislature. Our hope, as always, is to create needed change for people with disabilities and the support workers who care for them. If funded,
these priorities would positively affect many of the untenable parameters currently being maintained, namely the right to live and work independently in the community, in settings of individual choice, free from poverty. May the current lawsuit from the Disability Law Center be a catalyst for some of this needed change, and may the coming legislative session bring us closer to our goals.
-Sheryl Grassie is executive director of MNCCD