July 24, 2013
By Lateef McLeod
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed Congress 23 years ago, on July 26, 1990. Nine years later, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with developmental disabilities, won an important victory for people with disabilities. In a suit before the Supreme Court, known as the Olmstead decision, the Court ruled that Lois and Elaine were being denied their civil rights when the institution where they lived, the Georgia Regional Hospital, would not release them so they could live in the community as they desired.
Olmstead confirmed that people with disabilities have the right to live at home and in their communities with appropriate services and supports, including personal care assistants (PCAs). That's why we celebrate this civil rights victory each summer. Olmstead drastically changed the way society treats us. People like me, who need assistance to live independently, have less worry about being institutionalized against our will.
To live in the community, I rely on PCAs who assist me with my personal needs. With assistance, I am able to live on my own, hold a job, and participate in my community as a productive citizen. Because my disability is pretty significant, I need highly skilled PCAs. Not "just anybody" will do.
It's hard to find qualified PCAs because this type of work generally doesn't pay well or provide benefits. Moreover, PCAs do not have federal minimum wage and overtime protections, and there are few, if any, job protections. All of this limits the pool of potential employees.
In December 2011, the Obama Administration proposed narrowing the "companionship exemption" to the Fair Labor Standards Act. This action would extend minimum wage and overtime protections, as well as other basic labor rights, to PCAs and home health aides. I support this action because improved working conditions and better wages will attract more qualified workers who will see personal care as a career, not just a job. This will be a tremendous benefit for people of all ages who need PCAs because we will be have a more robust, skilled labor pool from which to choose our employees.
A recent report released by the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee concluded that 14 years after the Olmstead decision, many states are still failing to provide adequate community living options. According to the report, the number of working age adults with disabilities in institutions increased between 2008 and 2012. Sadly, more than 224,000 people with disabilities under the age of 65 are living in nursing homes, where their freedom is restricted. The report proposes that Congress amend the ADA to make independent living an obtainable option for people with disabilities.
Part of what will make independent living a viable option for more people is strengthening the personal care workforce. Extending federal labor protections to this workforce is an important step toward ensuring that there are sufficient skilled workers to support community living. The ability to live at home and in the community of one's choice is a human right. As we celebrate the ADA and Olmstead this summer, let's dedicate ourselves to making that right a reality for all people with disabilities.
Lateef McLeod has been involved with Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association for a year now, coming together with personal care attendants to champion dignity and respect for all of our communities. Lateef also interns with Sins Invalid, a stage performance-based organization that focuses on the themes of disability and sexuality. His first poetry book, A Declaration of a Body of Love, was published in 2010.