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Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 30

June marked the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which begins with these words: “The Congress finds that physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to participate fully in all aspects of society…” The ADA goes on to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in several key areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations and access to government services.*

Because older adults can develop physical or mental disabilities as they age, the ADA’s protections have been especially important for the people AARP and AARP Foundation represent. People with disabilities who are placed in settings that unnecessarily restrict their freedoms — such as nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — are, by definition, discriminated against because of their disabilities. Older people in these circumstances, who are already prone to being socially isolated, become increasingly segregated from their communities, which studies show has numerous negative health effects.

Of crucial significance in this regard, the Supreme Court bolstered the power of the ADA in 1999 with its landmark decision in L.C. v. Olmstead, finding that the unnecessary segregation of people in institutions is illegal discrimination that violates the ADA.

Starting in 2006, AARP Foundation began bringing class action lawsuits seeking to apply the Supreme Court’s decision to people in nursing facilities. Early cases were filed against the City of San Francisco and the states of Florida, California and Louisiana for various abuses. The AARP Foundation Litigation team’s efforts have had a direct impact on many tens of thousands of low-income older people who want to live with dignity and choice, and the case law that has resulted has affected scores more.

In 2010, AARP Foundation attorneys first filed what has become a long-standing class action against the District of Columbia on behalf of a woman named Ivy Brown and some 1,200 other nursing home residents who wanted to move back into their communities with appropriate government support rather than being forced to remain in nursing facilities that restricted their freedom. That case is on the verge of going to trial for a second time after an appeal was won in the D.C. Circuit last summer.

A victory in this case would mean that the DC government would have to implement case management services to enable our clients to access available community-based services rather than remain stuck in nursing facilities. That could set an important precedent and could mean a significant improvement in quality of life for countless thousands of low-income older people with disabilities — fulfilling the ADA’s guarantee of the right “to participate fully in all aspects of society.”

Thirty years on, the ADA remains a bulwark of protection for people who would otherwise have little recourse against discrimination.

* AARP Foundation Litigation has addressed other violations of the ADA in employment, housing, and transportation.