Protection and Advocacy: A Foundation for Disability Rights

July 28, 2015
Curt Decker, Executive Director, National Disability Rights Network

Photo of Curt Decker

As the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this week, ACL continues our guest blog series with blogs from leaders in the disability community. In this piece, Curt Decker, who leads the National Disability Right Network, describes the history of the protection and advocacy network and why these programs are so critical to ensuring the safety and independence of people with disabilities.

"A snake pit."

That’s how Senator Robert Kennedy described Willowbrook, a state institution for people with developmental disabilities on Staten Island, in 1965. Seven years later, Geraldo Rivera, then a young investigative reporter with ABC News in New York City, smuggled cameras into Willowbrook.For the first time, Americans were able to see the filthy, squalid conditions in which children and adults with developmental disabilities were forced to live receiving very little services and supports.

These broadcasts galvanized the state's senior senator, Jacob Javits, to action and the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) network was born.

The initial focus of the network was to safeguard the well-being of individuals living in institutions like Willowbrook nationwide. Today, P&As continue to monitor, investigate and attempt to remedy abuse and neglect in all facilities that care for people with disabilities. But over the years, Congress has broadened the work of the P&As. P&A agencies now have the authority to provide legal representation and other advocacy services to all people with disabilities wherever they reside on a range of issues.

P&As devote considerable resources to ensuring full access to inclusive educational programs, entitlements, healthcare, accessible housing, transportation, voting and competitive, integrated employment opportunities. P&As also help people with disabilities find living arrangements in their communities; indeed, the P&As have been at the forefront of the de-institutionalization movement.

Earlier this year, the Disability Rights Center (DRC), a P&A agency in New Hampshire, was the driving force behind the closing of Lakeview Neurorehabilitation Center, an 88-bed residential facility with a history of complaints about abuse, neglect, and substandard treatment. Lakeview’s closure provided an opportunity for individuals living in isolation there to move to smaller community-based settings more suited to their needs and nearer to their families and loved ones.

Not all P&A cases focus on facilities where there is evidence of abuse though. In fact, the bulk of P&A work is direct, one-on-one involvement with individuals seeking help securing their rights. The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), the national membership association for the P&A network, recently honored South Dakota Advocacy Services for one such case.

SD Advocacy Services provided assistance to Skyler S., a high school student with a disability in contact with the juvenile justice system. Skyler’s guardian contacted the P&A over concerns about her treatment and access to education. Not only did SD Advocacy Services help facilitate her re-entry back into the community, they ensured she had the proper support and services in place to thrive. In June, Skyler graduated from high school.

Each year P&As successfully advocate for thousands of people like Skyler and the residents of Lakeview, ensuring that our nation never returns to the dark days when places like Willowbrook existed. Let’s continue in that mission by building a society where people with disabilities have equality of opportunity and are able to participate fully in community life.

As with all guest contributions to the ACL website, this blog reflects the experiences and thoughts of the author. Find more information about guest content on the ACL site.

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Last modified on 01/11/2017

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