More MS news articles for Feb 2002

Disabled, elderly fight for freedom to live normal lives

February 21, 2002
By ALICIA CHANG, Associated Press Writer 

ALBANY - Linda Ostertag feels proud to have what others would consider a basic part of life - her own home.

Until a year ago, the 54-year-old, who has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, was living in a nursing home, unable to make her own decisions. Now, she is helped from dawn to dusk by five nurses. But it's in her one-bedroom apartment in the Rochester suburb of Henrietta, and that's better than being institutionalized.

"The whole idea of going to a nursing home, from my perspective, is there is no other option and you will stay there until you die," Ostertag said.

Advocates have rallied - most notably in a recent protest that disrupted state offices - for New York state to mainstream more disabled and senior citizens into the community.

They point to a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, commonly known as the Olmstead decision, that says states may have to place the developmentally disabled in homelike settings if they can fare just as well there as in state hospitals.

"Frankly, we have waited long enough for New York to implement this landmark decision," said Bruce Darling, an organizer for the disability rights group ADAPT. "The state should not be taking people's freedom away just because they had an accident, survived a crime, have a disability or just get older."

There are about 130,000 handicapped and senior citizens on Medicaid who are living in nursing homes in the state. Of that, about 88 percent are 65 years old and older while 12 percent are between ages 21 and 64, according to the Rochester-based Center for Disability Rights.

There are more than 110,000 disabled and senior citizens who receive some kind of personal home health care and live on their own, according to statistics provided by the state Health Department.

Darling argued that he wants an additional 1,300 disabled people integrated into the community at a cost of $7 million.

"We're not looking for more money. We just want to move the money from the institution to the community," Darling said. "What we really want is to spend the money better and not ask for more."

New York already spends $5 billion to provide in-home care to the handicapped, said Health Department spokesman John Signor. In addition, Gov. George Pataki's health care package approved by the Legislature in January will pay personal care workers higher salaries for their services that would help the disabled live independently in their own homes, he said.

Health officials are in the process of helping 125 residents get the community services they need to thrive on their own, Signor said. They also are working with hospital discharge planners to divert people back into the community setting who would otherwise be sent to nursing homes.

On Feb. 6, protesters, some in wheelchairs, stormed the Capitol and Corning Tower in an effort to force the Pataki administration to do more to integrate disabled people into the community.

A week later, protesters disrupted Pataki during his visit to a senior center, where Pataki later promised to have his aides meet with the demonstrators to talk about the issue. Advocates plan to meet with the governor's staff Tuesday in Albany, Darling said.

Protests on the Olmstead decision have been held nationwide. Last May, about 400 people with disabilities gathered outside the White House, saying President Bush broke his promise to sign an executive order by Feb. 1, 2001, to implement the Olmstead decision. Bush signed the order in June 2001.

As for Ostertag, living on her own has given her a new sense of freedom. She works as a volunteer advocate, getting the word out that there is an alternative to being institutionalized.

"I'm alive again," she said. "My mission is that anyone that can get out should have that opportunity."

©The Oneida Daily Dispatch 2002