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Disabled Call for More State Support

September 21, 2002|KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California health officials have failed to provide adequate support for disabled residents seeking to move from institutions to mainstream housing, dozens of participants in a health forum contended Friday.

The state needs to spend more money on housing, transportation, job training and personal finance programs to help disabled people live independently, several speakers said during the forum at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

"We can't afford to drag our feet on this issue," said Jack Allison, 51, who broke his neck in a diving accident a decade ago and uses a wheelchair. "Every day, every hour is too much time to be spent in a nursing home."

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision calls for states to provide, when appropriate, support for disabled people seeking to move from institutions into mainstream housing.

Commentary from the forum, along with other remarks gathered at forums being held throughout the state this month, will be forwarded to the state Department of Health and Human Services' Long-Term Care Council. Officials must establish a statewide plan to assist disabled people seeking independent housing by April to comply with the high court's decision.

The court's ruling stems from a case in Georgia, where state officials maintained that they had the authority to decide which form of treatment was better even when state-appointed doctors preferred community homes over state-run facilities.

Their policy was challenged by two mentally disabled women who wanted to move out of the Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta. Doctors at the facility agreed they were ready to leave, but state officials refused to release them.

"Your input today is part of the plan, it's part of the solution and it's very important," said Eva Goetz, executive director of the Freedom to Live Foundation, a Northridge-based nonprofit organization that provides support to people with disabilities.

Advocates argued that people with disabilities are consigned to life in nursing homes and hospitals if the state fails to fund programs that help them learn to live on their own.

Several men and women in wheelchairs said the state doesn't need to create a whole new set of programs to help disabled people move into homes of their own; it merely needs to support existing programs.

Allison, of Northridge, said programs such as New Start Homes, a nonprofit transitional housing program in Northridge, supported his return to the mainstream. Today, he works in public relations for New Start, lives alone and drives a van.

Sarah Hayes, 20, of Chatsworth, who lived in a hospital from age 2 1/2 to 12 after she contracted polio, said she knows the loneliness and depression that come with life in an institution. The aspiring advertising executive said she was fortunate to find transitional housing that provided access to school, job training and transportation.

"Housing and transportation must be available to other people like me," she said. "As any red-blooded American, I have the right to fulfill my goals and dreams. In order to do that, we need funding."

Margaret Belton, who heads an agency that provides in-home health care for disabled clients, said the disabled must challenge government to make sure their needs are met.

"If we want to deinstitutionalize," she said, "we are going to have to have a plan that reflects our needs."

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