Recent stories about people with disabilities yearning to live independently with a place of their own remind me of Karli. She is a young woman with disabilities who a few years ago was able to move from her parents’ home in southern Minnesota to a safe, affordable apartment.


Over time, she has spread her wings, doing public speaking in community college classes and working on a state disabilities leadership council. Today she says she is “loving the freedom” of being in her community with people she grew up with.

Karli is among some 1,700 people with disabilities who have been helped, one person at a time, through the Housing Access Services partnership between the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and The Arc Minnesota since 2009. These are people who previously lived in a family home, a group home or other large setting, or who were homeless. Today they live in the community, in their own place, with people they choose.

And this is just one of many ways the DHS works in close partnership with people with disabilities, family members, counties, service providers, advocates, and others to promote choice and independence.

We continue as a state to have success in helping people with disabilities live independently. Minnesota is a leader in this area — approximately 94 percent of people with disabilities receive home and community-based services instead of institutional care. We also lead all neighboring states in the proportion of total dollars spent for home and community-based services compared with institutions.

Does Minnesota face challenges? Yes, but we are on the right track. We have, over the past several years, invested significantly in time, staff and money to undertake major systems change. Given this progress, it is unfortunate that we now must divert precious resources meant for people living with disabilities to defend lawsuits that hinder our work toward meeting our responsibilities and goals (“State accused of segregating Minnesotans with disabilities in group homes,” Aug. 4).

Our ongoing efforts are guided by the Minnesota Olmstead Plan, which provides the path forward to increase opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities to live, work and succeed alongside people without disabilities. The plan has been approved by the U.S. District Court and is driven by the core principle of person-centeredness. The focus is on what is important to the person as well as what is important for the person. This approach helps possibilities emerge for meaningful relationships, and allows Minnesotans with disabilities to work, play and decide where and with whom to live.

The biggest challenge to further progress is that people throughout Minnesota lack access to housing they can afford. Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposals to invest in affordable housing, not yet fully funded by the Legislature, would help more low-income people with disabilities find a place to live in the community. There also are disparities between how the federal government reimburses states for the cost of people living in the community and those living in institutions. A federal change to Medicaid reimbursement to align with the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandates in the landmark Olmstead case is needed to make housing costs more affordable for states. Finally, we must address a critical shortage of home care workers who help many people with disabilities to live more independently.

Like all household moves, successful transitions of people with disabilities — like the one Karli made — take careful planning and coordination. Funding and various types of support are also important. Most important is the willingness of partners — the DHS along with case managers, providers, families, people with disabilities and the greater community — to pull together in the same direction, honoring the choices of people with disabilities and doing all we can to make them possible.


Emily Piper is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.