Hundreds of Minnesotans with disabilities could gain access to better jobs, housing and medical care under an ambitious state plan approved this week by a federal judge.

In a ruling late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank applauded the state for creating a detailed blueprint with realistic goals, while pushing back against the perception that the plan would forcibly integrate people against their wishes.

But the judge also warned the state to move quickly on problems that have lingered for months, even years. “The court expects the state to not only follow through on these commitments, but to make them a top priority,” Frank wrote.

The ruling is expected to unleash a set of state and local initiatives that would help people with disabilities move into jobs and housing in the community, while reducing Minnesota’s long-standing dependence on segregated settings, such as group homes and sheltered workshops. The blueprint, known as an Olmstead plan, sets forth annual goals for housing and employment, and calls for the elimination of long waiting lists for community services funded through Medicaid.

The plan would also accelerate the movement of people from state institutions, such as the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, into community settings. And staff working in these facilities would be required to dramatically reduce their use of restraints and seclusion.

“This is huge,” said Mary Tingerthal, chair of the Olmstead subcabinet designated by Gov. Mark Dayton to write and implement the plan. “It’s really implementing a system of informed choice, where the person can articulate how they would like to lead their lives, and agencies will work to help them to find the best options.”

At the same time, some disability advocates have questioned the Dayton administration’s commitment to the plan, which took nearly three years to write and underwent multiple revisions. Many of the goals, some have argued, are overly modest and lack accountability for enforcement.

More than 40 states have adopted similar plans since a landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision, known as Olmstead vs. L.C., that ordered states to eliminate the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities. Even so, many states still have long waiting lists for services and, because of budget constraints and a lack of accountability, have made little progress in the integration of adults with disabilities.

“The plan is only the first step,” said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. “For the plan to have true meaning, it has to come to life.”

While approving the document, Frank took special issue with those who said it might result in diminished choice for people with disabilities, by forcing them to accept integrated settings even if they preferred to stay in group homes or sheltered workshops. Individual choice, he argued, is central to the Olmstead decision, and the plan should not be construed as an effort to force the closure of certain facilities, he wrote.

“The goal of placing individuals with disabilities in the most integrated setting must be balanced against what is appropriate and desirable for the individual,” Frank wrote.


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