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  drawing of a group home

Funding for institution stalls Olmstead progress in Illinois
by Gary Arnold

Gary Arnold is the Public Relations Coordinator at Access Living, Chicago's Center for Independent Living.

To get involved in the effort to stop the institution, contact Tom Wilson at tomas@accessliving.org

DESPITE HEAVY OPPOSITION from Illinois' disability community, Governor George Ryan recently approved funding for the construction of a four-building, 64-bed institution for people with disabilities. The proposed 20-acre campus will be a Marklund facility. Marklund, a for-profit company set up to run institutions, already has institutions for people with disabilities in, among other spots, Glendale Heights, Bloomingdale and Winfield, Illinois. Construction for this latest facility is scheduled to begin this summer in Geneva, a suburb west of Chicago.

The Illinois lawmakers' decision to spend up to $4 million on a new closed-campus facility clearly contradicts the intent of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1999 Olmstead decision, in which the Court ruled that people with disabilities have a right to live in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. The federal government has mandated each state to create a system through which institutionalized people with disabilities can transition from institutions into the community.

Not only does Illinois have no such system, the state is taking steps making it more difficult for individuals to integrate into the community. Not only does the decision to fund Marklund create yet another situation in which people with disabilities will be segregated from the rest of the community, but it also siphons money away from programs which are intended to support independent living.

The Illinois disability community supported three bills in the illinois state legislature which would have significantly increased the wages of personal assistants, a crucial link between people with disabilities and independent living. None of these bills made it past the House Rules committee. Although this year's Illinois budget did include a personal assistants' pay raise of two percent, that raise amounts to only 14 cents an hour, and does not even take affect until April of 2002.

Rather than supporting a pay increase for personal assistants, lawmakers awarded a dollar-an-hour raise for assistants working in institutions for the developmentally disabled, another decision supporting institutional care instead of community services. Several other bills, one which would have required the Illinois Department of Human Services to develop an Olmstead plan as mandated, another which would have required agencies to provide transition services to people in institutions and notify people of their right to community-based services, and another which would have funded family support services, also stalled in committee.

Marklund supporters argue that people with severe disabilities require the type of institutional care that Marklund will provide, care not available in community settings. But more often than not, these arguments come from the non-disabled community. No matter how severe the disability, individuals can receive equivalent if not better services through community services, at a far lower cost to the state.

"People tend to be happier when they are living in the most independent situation possible. That is true of people living in the community now, and that is true of people in group homes and larger institutions," says Tom Wilson, the personal assistant and health care team leader at Access Living, Chicago's center for independent living. "They would rather be in the community but they have few real options."

Marklund Board Member John Sacksteader contends that its residents will not be isolated from the community. "People who live at the new institution will continue to be fully integrated into the community at large," he said.

The institution plans to integrate its residents with the rest of the community through field trips, sporting events, restaurant excursions, shopping, camping and job opportunities. But the integration represented by a new Marklund facility is not what Olmstead plaintiffs and disability advocates in Illinois had in mind. When the residents make trips into the community they will be in a group and they will be using Marklund buses. This type of community contact resembles a high school field trip more than integration. 

No matter how much contact the residents have with the community, they are still institutionalized and segregated. They are not living with their friends or their families. They are living on a campus intentionally isolated from the rest of the community. The Olmstead decision and the ensuing federal mandate were intended to provide consumers with options. But if Illinois funds institutions such as Marklund, which cost two or three times more than services in the community, options will grow more and more limited. The more money that goes into institutions the less will be available for community services.

If this trend continues, people with disabilities will be left with only two unacceptable choices: fund the entire cost of independent living services themselves or check themselves into an institution, away from family and friends.

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