“Fix the system, not me.” Of all of the signs displayed at a recent rally, that is the one that resonates the most. It is so much more than words on tagboard, stapled to a stick.
Disabled people and their allies spoke out before a court proceeding that could change their lives. The recent hearing in U.S. District Court in St. Paul centered on a proposed class action settlement between the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and plaintiffs represented by the Disability Law Center.
As this editorial was written, we at Access Press and many others were awaiting Judge Donovan Frank’s decision.
The federal Olmstead versus L.C. decision looms over the Minnesota case. The 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision was based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is one of the most important disability rights decisions.
In that case, the high court ruled that people with disabilities have qualified rights to receive state funded supports and services in the community, instead of living in institutions. The Minnesota case was filed in 2016 because a group believed that Minnesota has not met that part of Olmstead.
Objectors to the proposed settlement had their day in court, saying that the pending pact doesn’t do enough for people with disabilities who want to get out of group homes and have a say about where they live.
We acknowledge that there are great group homes and corporate foster care homes in Minnesota, where workers go above and beyond, and where residents are treated well.
We also acknowledge that many places are struggling, if not utterly overwhelmed by the catastrophic staffing shortage in our state. Too many homes lack staff and have high turnover of the staff they have. That affects levels of service. And it affects how residents are treated. Period.
Some of the stories from objectors are sad and powerful, and all come down to self-direction and personal choice. Consider being stuck at home, in your room, for days and weeks upon end. You spend hours and hours online because there’s nothing else to do.
You cannot watch a favorite TV show because you cannot afford a TV. The time your show is on isn’t convenient for staff to assist in getting you to the community room. Missing one’s favorite show may sound like a little thing. But sometimes little things become big things when they happen again and again.
You stay in your room because you don’t want interactions with frustrated and overworked staff. Worse, you don’t ask for services you are entitled too, for fear of retaliation.
You don’t get out to a park or to see friends or go to a worship service. You miss community activities. A trip to Walmart, to wander a store for an hour while group home staff shop for groceries, is NOT an outing. A group “outing” that no resident chooses is NOT an outing.
Eating when the group home staff decide you are going to eat is NOT self-direction and personal choice. Not being able to get to an appointment is NOT self-direction and personal choice.
Other stories were equally heartbreaking and infuriating, of people who had to scream for help before they could get any kind of assistance, of people who could not get proper care and dignified, respectful treatment.
We were especially shocked by stories from those who fear retaliation for speaking out. They are rightfully worried about being asked to leave their living situations when there are so few options.
One of the attorney comments from the May 12 hearing also stuck with us. It was said that the court case is not the vehicle to fix the state’s dire staffing shortage. While we agree with that statement, the stark reality is that the staffing problems are the cloud hanging over everything. The system is broken.
We have a news article in this issue about the proposed changes the settlement would bring and we urge readers to consider those pending changes carefully. Will new requirements bring improvements and the community-based living situations so many of us want?
Frankly, we don’t know. There’s a lot at play here. One issue is Waiver Reimagine, which is to start in 2026. Waiver Reimagine is meant to consolidate four disability waiver programs and streamline the system. There is skepticism about that.
And of course, looming over everything is staffing, staffing, staffing. We know that the court case is not about staffing. But without adequate staffing, and staff getting paid what they need, all of the policies in the world won’t make a bit of difference. And what staff can be paid is up to elected officials.
“Fix the system, not me.” That’s all too true, in so many ways.