This is What Fighting for Disability Rights Looks Like

by Jordan Berger, NCLEJ Skadden Fellow

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On this anniversary, it is important to reflect on the progress the disability community has made towards inclusion and equity. But we cannot ignore the work still needed to ensure dignity, equity, and inclusion for all members of the (expanding) diverse community of disabled people living in the United States.    

The ADA is a key civil rights law that provides a basic frame work for accessibility. The ADA applies to all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all places open to the general public. While disability rights have significantly advanced over the past thirty-two years, many people with disabilities living in the United States are still not treated equitably. . The importance of accessibility is often downplayed, but making resources and spaces accessible is not just beneficial to some groups—it allows  communities to  thrive.  

Here at NCLEJ, we’re celebrating the ADA anniversary by joining @DisabilityMap to amplify disabled voices. Today, I’m sharing highlights from three of NCLEJ’s many cases advancing disability rights.  

Access to Food for Missourians 
People in Missouri—especially people with disabilities—are getting rejected at alarming rates when applying for SNAP benefits. NCLEJ filed a lawsuit in February 2022  to ensure access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for Missourians. From long waits and dropped calls at Missouri’s Department of Social Services (DSS) call center to lack of accommodations for people with disabilities in offices, those seeking access to SNAP benefits confronted unacceptable hurdles.  

Ms. Mary Holmes, one plaintiff in our case, is a 55-year-old Black resident of St. Louis who can’t easily leave home because of symptoms related to her throat cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder. Not having a car or other reliable transportation, or home internet makes the situation even harder. The DSS’s reliance on an understaffed call center unfairly prevents people with disabilities, like Ms. Holmes, from  applying and interviewing for SNAP. For low-income residents of Missouri without reliable phone or internet service, or those relying on pay-per-minute phones, sitting on hold for hours to complete the required SNAP interview is simply not an option. 

Ms. Holmes and another plaintiff in this case, L.V., have long COVID that impacts their ability to access SNAP benefits. As the country faces another surge of COVID-19 cases and food prices soar from inflation, access to sustaining food benefits remains crucial. The number of disabled and newly disabled people is rapidly growing in the U.S; every one of these people needs to eat. 

The good news is that our case to secure access to SNAP in Missouri is moving forward. On July 11, a judge denied a motion to dismiss filed by the defendant. This victory follows another in Spring when our plaintiffs received interviews and started receiving benefits after months of being unable to get through to the State Agency’s failing and inaccessible call center.  

These are good signs in a state that is categorically denying low-income residents access to food benefits  because of problems like dropped calls and lack of technological access to the DSS. But this is one state. Further advocacy will be needed, state by state across the country, to ensure that people with disabilities will be able to access pantry essentials as social services offices shutter offices in the name of public health and cost savings. 

Home Care for Michiganders with Disabilities 
We continue to fight for home care services for Michiganders with disabilities through NCLEJ’s Waskul v. Washtenaw County Community Mental Health case. This case was brought  on behalf of individuals in Michigan with developmental disabilities and the Washtenaw Association for Community Advocacy (WACA), a non-profit organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities. The case challenged changes to the Medicaid budgeting methodology that provides funding for people with disabilities who receive home and community based services (HCBS) under the Medicaid Act, the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and Michigan State laws. Due to budgeting changes, plaintiffs and other members of WACA have had difficulty hiring and retaining workers equipped to provide them with the necessary treatment and services to remain at home. The current wage is not competitive with that of other employers in Ann Arbor (and the surrounding cites) and places people with disabilities at risk of having to be institutionalized to receive appropriate care and services. It also forced all of the plaintiffs to rely on aging family members to step in and provide significant services, even while those family members navigated significant challenges to their own health and wellbeing. 

More than 20 years ago, in Olmstead v. L.C. by Zimring (1999), the Supreme Court enshrined the ADA’s “integration mandate” that people with disabilities be provided with services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Our Waskul case is an effort to enforce that ruling and secure meaningingful participation in the community for our clients with disabilities.   

Making Public Benefits Accessible in Suffolk County 
NCLEJ with co-counsel from the Empire Justice Center and Dentons LLP obtained class certification and a settlement in Newkirk v. Pierre. This ADA lawsuit against Suffolk County Department of Social Services  combats disability discrimination in the provision of public benefits including Public Assistance, SNAP, Medicaid, and emergency shelter. Plaintiffs in this case could not apply for or maintain benefits because the County DSS failed to provide reasonable accommodations as required by the ADA. Suffolk County DSS refused to provide applications  accessible to people with visual impairments. The County DSS did not allow physically disabled people to sit while waiting in line. And help was not given to a man with an intellectual disability to complete forms he could not read and understand on his own. 

Currently, the court still needs to approve the groundbreaking settlement which transforms every aspect of public benefits administration to make the process more accessible—from training workers to revising forms to updating computer systems. In addition to changing the County DSS’s practices, this settlement includes extensive years-long monitoring to ensure proper implementation of settlement terms.  

With more than 22,000 low-income people with disabilities living in Suffolk County—all financially eligible for benefits-the impact will be enormous. The settlement will ensure that disabled people in Suffolk County have an equal opportunity to access life-sustaining assistance and provide a way to ensure disabled people actually receive the relief the County committed to provide.

These cases in Missouri, Michigan, and Suffolk County, New York, are just three of NCLEJ’s crucial cases in defense of disabled people’s rights to have their basic needs met and obtain health care that supports their independence and well-being. Since cases can take many years to resolve, the road to justice is long. Yet the legal rights established by the ADA and secured in these cases, secure important protections and expanding critical access to basic needs benefits for indigent, disabled people.