Settlement improves living opportunities for disabled Chicagoans

August 30, 2011

Kate Dries and The Associated Press

(Flickr/Galen Smith)
Access Living's building on Chicago Avenue. They are a disability advocacy group in Chicago actively involved in the case.

Disabled Cook County residents have reached a settlement with the state of Illinois about the rights of disabled Medicaid residents in nursing homes. U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow in Chicago ruled Tuesday that people living outside of nursing homes can receive state-provided services in their alternate housing.

Ben Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU, said the organization hopes the rest of the state will follow suit with Cook County. "We expect that the reform process will demonstrate both that people, many people want to move to the community when given the chance with the right services and support, and that moving them to the community will actually not cost the state more money, and in some instances will actually save the state money," Wolf said.

The lawsuit, Colbert v. Quinn, is not the first of its kind. The 1999 Supreme Court case Olmstead v. L.C. held that institutionalization of disabled people is discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Marca Bristo, President & CEO of Access Living, a disability advocacy group, compared Olmstead to cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

Wolf believes that that's an accurate comparison. "Olmstead is a case that crystallizes the rights of people with disabilities who were needlessly institutionalized," he said. "And we're delighted that Governor Quinn and Michael Gelder, his chief health advisor, have signed on to a legally enforceable committment to move the state in a different direction." 

Plaintiffs, including Lenil Colbert, the disabled man for whom the case was named, claim that Illinois could save over two thousand dollars a year per person by housing patients in apartments and not nursing homes. After having a stroke at the age of 32, Colbert became partially paralyzed, and was placed in a nursing home. "I volunteered my time, my name, and my story to this case for several reasons," said Colbert. "I was never given the choice to receive support in my own home." Colbert now lives alone, where he receives about five hours of services a day. 

The state of Illinois will be required to spend $10 million in the first 30 months of implemenation to help over a thousand residents move. Court approval, and a fairness hearing set for December 20, are required before the case becomes state policy.

"We expect and hope that the number of people who will be [in nursing homes] for long term stays will radically diminish," Barca said.