An inhumane state policy on people with disabilities

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There are plenty of ways New York can save money. One of the worst ways to do it would be on the backs of people with disabilities.

But for years, New York has been shortchanging programs for people with disabilities. While it took a progressive step in raising the minimum wage, for example, it failed to give nonprofit agencies the extra money they needed to pay the higher wages for home health aides who care for people with disabilities.

Now comes another insult. As the Times Union’s Brendan J. Lyons reports, the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities has been using some bureaucratic tricks to deny out-of-state care for young people with high-needs autism diagnoses in order to force them into a remote New York state institution that parents liken to a prison.

That seems on its face to run contrary to the longstanding goal of deinstitutionalizing people who are able to live in the community with reasonable support. That’s been the guiding policy since the 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. Supreme Court ruling, which found that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ruling established the principle of allowing them to live in the least restrictive, most community-integrated setting possible.

A 2014 state law also afforded parents of people with disabilities due process rights in decisions about their children’s long-term care, rights that kick in after the child turns 21 or graduates from school. So in cases where there is a window between graduation and the time the child turns 21, parents say OPWDD is presenting them with an ultimatum — agree to have the child put in Sunmount, or lose funding for their continuing care.

A host of words comes to mind. Heartless. Unconscionable. Reprehensible. Inhumane. One might say unfathomable, until one remembers that this policy was hatched under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who talked a good progressive line but had a miserly side when it came to funding schools and programs for people with disabilities.

But using a loophole to throw young people with disabilities in with criminals in a prisonlike institution? We would never have imagined such cruelty from New York state.

And what does OPWDD have to say about this? Or about how it allegedly threatened to arrest the parent of a young man who was being forced into Sunmount, along with a representative from a Massachusetts school where their child was receiving treatment, just for wanting to see the facility before he was committed? Nothing but a jargony statement about how it works with parents but its hands are tied.

If that’s so, then the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul should fix the law — and take a hard look at why a state as wealthy as New York needs to send children out of state for care in the first place. Why are programs in New York unable or unwilling to serve so many of them?

Oh, and one more thing: Who came up with this idea of trying to deprive parents of disabled children of their right to advocate for their vulnerable loved ones — someone in OPWDD, or someone in the Division of the Budget? Someone might want to reconsider their career in public service.

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