Becoming an advocate for Americans with disabilities

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Jessica Duncan Felfoldi is a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow with Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Mental Health and Disability Rights Project. Her fellowship project, sponsored by Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, focuses on the civil rights of Georgia’s nursing home residents protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Below, Jessica shares the stories of two clients that she was able to help gain stability.

Gregarious and outgoing, Mr. B seemed an unlikely candidate to end up living in a nursing facility for over a year. Despite two hip replacements, this mid-fifties grandfather had been living on-his-own and doing well. However, after a medication mishap landed him in the hospital for almost two months, he developed a painful pressure sore and found himself in a midtown nursing facility for rehabilitation. A sudden worsening of his diabetes added to his health worries causing him to need additional care.

While in the nursing home, Mr. B lost his prior housing.  He faced a dilemma many of our clients with disabilities in need of housing face: there is a significant lack of affordable and accessible housing in Atlanta.  Subsidized housing is hard to come by, with the current waitlist time for project-based subsidized housing averaging one and a half to two years.  Local housing authorities do not have general housing vouchers available for distribution, in part because funding has been cut, but also because the down economy has dragged out the lifecycle of each voucher for longer than anticipated while, simultaneously, the demand has risen.

Mr. B connected with a local self-advocate and friend of Atlanta Legal Aid Society, who referred him to our Mental Health and Disability Rights Project. We advocated for Mr. B to gain entry into the Money Follows the Person (MFP) program, a relatively new Medicaid project that provides one year of support and funding to help individuals with disabilities transition out of nursing facilities and other institutions back to a home in the community. MFP aims to smooth out the bumps that can derail a person’s move toward independence, such as helping with security deposits, basic furniture, and the first week’s worth of groceries.

One crucial benefit I helped Mr. B obtain through the MFP program was a Housing Choice Voucher from the Decatur Housing Authority. It was one of only thirty-five such vouchers specially set aside for MFP participants. In addition to winning a voucher for Mr. B, we helped him locate an apartment that is affordable despite his low monthly social security income.  Not only does Mr. B have a better opportunity to pursue a meaningful life in the community, but also the  at-home care Mr. B now receives for a limited number of hours per week costs the state and its taxpayers much less than the intensive round-the-clock care provided in a nursing facility.

Mr. B was thrilled to move out of the nursing facility and into his own home just in time for the New Year. He proudly showed off his new apartment, newly furnished and stocked with basic supplies thanks to MFP. Mr. B looks forward to having access to the grab bars and other modifications MFP will have installed in the coming month to make his self-care more manageable.

 

Having secured housing with Jessica's help, Mr. B was able to move out of the nursing facilities and now feels "like the king of my own castle."

 

 

Throughout her life, Betty, 58, has faced numerous challenges.  She was born to an alcoholic mother and as a result suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome that has caused related intellectual disabilities.  Betty also has epilepsy and continues to have seizures on a regular basis, often causing her to fall and suffer injuries. At age 2, Betty was sent to live in Central State Hospital, a notorious state mental hospital, where she remained for most of her childhood before bouncing back forth between foster care and Central State through her teenage years. A kind family took her in for most of her adult life, but her care needs eventually became overwhelming as her caregivers aged. In 2006, her guardianship was turned over to the State of Georgia, at which time Betty entered the SOURCE program, which helped pay for her to live in a humble yet cozy personal care home in western Georgia. Betty has found stability and safety there, where she enjoys bead projects and has a small craft table in her room.

Recently, Betty was terminated from the SOURCE program for failure to meet its eligibility requirements by Georgia’s Department for Community Health (DCH).  This, however, was a wrongful termination given the evidence from her SOURCE file that stated she still met the requisite combination of criteria to stay in the program.   Without these community-based benefits, Betty would be forced to vacate her home and leave without any family or a stable environment to go to. I worked with my colleagues to represent Betty in her administrative hearing against DCH.

Our team had not even finished the cross-examination of the first witness before the Administrative Law Judge interrupted to say that we had proven Betty was eligible for the program based on DCH's own files and witnesses. We moved to dismiss the DCH’s reason for termination and the judge granted our motion. Betty was overjoyed and relieved that she could once again return to her safe haven in west Georgia.

Betty and Mr. B’s stories are reminders of the ongoing need for those unable or unready to advocate for themselves to have a voice in our legal system.  I am glad to be that voice.  Left without representation, Betty would have had little power to stand up to the government agency trying to strip her of her housing, and Mr. B would have been unable to transition out of a nursing facility to his own home where he can be an active participant in the community.  Through my project, I will fight for those who otherwise would have no voice and will ensure that this marginalized group has a passionate advocate ontheir side.

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