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25 Years of Olmstead: Progress and the Path Forward in Rhode Island

A young black woman in stylish professional attire makes the American Sign Language sign for 'today' by extending the thumb and pinkie on each hand into a y shape with the three middle fingers curled into a fist.

On this day, June 22, in 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision became a cornerstone in the fight for disability rights and has profoundly influenced disability policy and practice around inclusive, community living. The Olmstead Decision also brought about the development of state-specific Olmstead Plans aimed at ensuring people with disabilities live in the least restrictive environments possible. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of this milestone, it is important to reflect on the progress made and the challenges that remain, particularly in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island's Olmstead Plan: Progress and Achievements

With the closure of the Ladd School that concluded in 1994, Rhode Island began ahead of the curve in prioritizing community-based living for people with disabilities, but today our state is one of just 7 that lack an Olmstead Plan. Thanks to a 2014 consent decree to improve integrated services—particularly employment—for RI’s developmental disability system, considerable resources have been committed to implementing inclusion measures in that population, but the system remains lacking for the rest of the disabled community: the elderly, people with disabilities that began in adulthood, and children with disabilities.

A man with a disability who is in a wheelchair sits beside a taller man with a beard, baseball hat, and sweatshirt. They are seated at an outdoor table on which a meal is served. They are leaning together to pose for a photo and the bearded man is making the thumbs-up sign.

As an important first step to creating an Olmstead plan, Senate Bill 2618 and House Bill 7821 were submitted to the RI Legislature in March 2024 and call for the establishment of an Olmstead Commission consisting of representatives from 19 state and community agencies as well as 6 community members with lived experience across a wide range of disabilities. This Commission would be responsible for the complex process of assessing needs for community-based living in Rhode Island and drafting a Plan to meet those needs. Unfortunately, while the measure passed in the Senate, it was held for further study; the Ocean State Center for Independent Living (OSCIL) has a meeting scheduled with legislators who are allies to plan strategy for the next legislative session.

A person in a white striped shirt stands to the right so only their torso and arms are visible. An elderly, balding man in a black striped shirt sits in an arm chair in front of them. The standing person grasps the elderly man's hands to provide support as he tries to stand.

Challenges and Future Directions

While Rhode Island has made notable progress in inclusivity, our ad hoc approach has left funding and supports inconsistent across the range of programs and populations. While those in the Developmental Disabilities System have seen significant improvement in recent years, urgent programming and resource needs are reaching a crisis level in other sectors including the broader Medicaid program and Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS), the Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF), and early childhood services like Early Intervention.

An Olmstead Plan is critical to addressing a variety of critical needs:

A blind black woman with dark glasses and long brown braids holds a white vision cane in one hand while she waits for a bus. She is sitting on a bench under a bus shelter with transparent walls and two large posters.
  • Funding and Resource Allocation: The recently passed 2025 budget represents a significant win for human service funding in Rhode Island, but without a centralized Olmstead Plan for unified advocacy, competing priorities will continue to impact the availability and quality of services.

  • Service Coordination: Effective coordination among various service providers is crucial for seamless service delivery, but service coordination remains siloed in Rhode Island with separate and sometimes competing coordination within individual programs.

  • Addressing Waiting Lists: Despite progress, many individuals with disabilities remain on waiting lists for community-based services.

  • Inclusivity in Policy Development: Involving individuals with disabilities and their families in the development and evaluation of policies and programs is critical. Their insights and experiences can help shape more effective and responsive services.

Moving Forward

A young, smiling Asian woman with brown hair stands partly behind and older Asian woman with gray hair. The older woman is using a walker do you move across a green lawn while the Younger woman assists her. There is lush tropical landscaping in the background.

The development of an Olmstead Plan is a priority issue for OSCIL. We will continue to educate policy makers on the need for a plan, and work with community allies like the Rhode Island Developmental Disability Council (RIDDC) to ensure that the voices of people living with disability are heard at the state capitol. As RIDDC Executive Director, Kevin Nerney, recently stated, the Olmstead Plan will need “to be a living dynamic document that can continuously set actions to meet the needs of all Rhode Islanders.” Many different voices will be needed to represent the diverse population of our little state.

A man with a yellow shirt and khaki pants sit in a power wheelchair beside a standing man wearing a black baseball hat and jacket. They are on a cobblestone sidewalk outside a café and the standing man is holding a to-go up to the sitting man's mouth so he can drink.

So as we honor this significant milestone, we encourage the community to continue building towards a society where everyone, regardless of ability, has the opportunity to live a life of their choosing, fully integrated into the fabric of our communities.


 

Want to Get Involved?

If you are interested in advocating for an Olmstead Plan or working on its development, you can contact:

These organizations can provide information, resources, and opportunities to get involved in advocating for the development and implementation of an Olmstead Plan in Rhode Island.

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