By Michelle Diament
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living said it is committed to making “community living possible for all.”
The assertion comes in a letter to members of Congress weeks after the agency’s principal deputy administrator, Mary Lazare, spoke at two disability group conferences. A similar set of remarks during both appearances left some advocates alarmed and sparked concerns from a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers.
In letters sent to Lance Robertson, who heads the Administration for Community Living, last month, the lawmakers said they were told that Lazare indicated that the Supreme Court came to the wrong conclusion in the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. case, which affirmed the right of people with disabilities to access community-based living.
Furthermore, the letters from U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Gregg Harper, R-Miss., and Jim Langevin, D-R.I., as well as Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said Lazare reportedly stated a preference for segregated and institutional settings.
There are believed to be no recordings of the appearances, which Lazare made at conferences put on by the Autism Society and the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities during the same July day.
However, later that day, Lazare seemed to back away from her own words through a statement on the Administration for Community Living’s Twitter page.
“I regret & apologize for my words at #ASAconf18,” thestatement read. “ACL believes ppl w/disabilities have the right & choice to live in the community. We work to expand those opptys & are 100% committed to that mission. We also recognize Olmstead gives people the right to other choices.”
Now, in a written response to members of Congress, ACL’s Robertson is denying that Lazare expressed the alleged views.
“As you know, Principal Deputy Administrator Mary Lazare spoke on July 11 at two events. We know portions of her remarks caused concerns, which we are happy to address. I want to assure you that she did not state, or intend to express, the opinions referenced in your letter,” Robertson wrote.
“At ACL, we believe community living should always be the expectation,” he continued. “An integral part of our mandate is to uphold those rights guaranteed in the Americans with Disabilities Act and reinforced through the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which we fully support.”
In addition, Robertson said his agency remains “firmly committed” to supporting the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in implementing a Medicaid rule outlining what types of settings qualify as community-based. The lawmakers had indicated that Lazare reportedly said the rule should be revisited.
Even with the response, Langevin said he remains unsatisfied.
“Despite the agency’s assertion that Ms. Lazare ‘did not state, or intend to express, the opinions referenced in (our) letter,’ I remain concerned that we received no additional information or clarification on her original remarks,” the congressman told Disability Scoop. “People with disabilities deserve to be fully included in society, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply unacceptable.”
Op-Ed Written By Congressman Jim Langevin
As the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, I’ve spent the last 17 years navigating the hallways of our nation’s Capitol Building in a wheelchair. My ability to enter the House chamber, cast my vote, and carry out my responsibilities as a member of Congress was made possible by extraordinary leaders who fought for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights law that protects Americans from discrimination due to a disability and promotes inclusion within our society.
However, the more than quarter century legacy of the ADA is being threatened. Today, the House of Representatives will vote on the cynically named ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), harmful legislation that fundamentally weakens the protections of the ADA.
The ADA Education and Reform Act is marketed as a bill to aid ADA compliance and promote greater inclusion for people with disabilities. Make no mistake, though, this bill undermines years of progress for the disability community by preventing disabled individuals from asserting their rights under the ADA. Ironically, H.R. 620 adds legal barriers, including long court wait times, to a law that is all about bringing down barriers — and we have had more than 27 years to comply. The excessive requirements and extensive waiting periods decimate the right to public accommodations for an entire vulnerable population and set a dangerous precedent for the future. After all, justice delayed is justice denied.
The sponsors of the legislation point to some unscrupulous lawyers who have taken advantage of certain laws that allow monetary awards for violations of accessibility standards. However, these are state laws – suing for damages is not permitted under the federal law. Instead of addressing this problem at its source, proponents of the bill are opting to reduce accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities in schools, restaurants, public transportation, commercial facilities, recreational sites, sales or rental establishments and more.
I remember what it was like before the ADA became law. We did not have access to public buildings, employment opportunities were scarce, and there were no legal protections against discrimination. I remember wanting to attend certain schools, family functions, or even professional events, but my participation was always dictated by the barriers I encountered. Each lost opportunity was a reminder that I am not like everyone else. Even if our country was founded by a belief that we can celebrate our differences while finding strength in our commonalities, I – like so many people with a disability – should not be limited because I cannot have a seat at the proverbial table of life – no matter the occasion.
Despite the sea of change brought by the ADA, people with disabilities continue to face significant obstacles to meaningful inclusion. I do not wish to go back to a time where discrimination was commonplace and accepted under our laws.
We must not undermine the fundamental rights of people with disabilities by passing this misguided bill that encourages businesses to ignore the ADA. Every vote of support will be a message to people with disabilities that we are not equal or worthy of the same civil rights protections as other individuals. The stakes could not be higher for people with disabilities and everyone who looks to our elected officials to fight for what’s right and reject all forms of discrimination. After nearly three decades of amazing progress, let’s not turn back the clock.
Langevin represents Rhode Island’s 2nd District and is co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus.