COLUMBUS, Ohio — A family advocacy group that opposes a class-action lawsuit filed against the state of Ohio on behalf of residents with developmental disabilities is requesting separate legal representation.

In a letter to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Disability Advocacy Alliance says a federal lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Ohio threatens the welfare of their loved ones who live in residential care centers, attend sheltered workshops or go to center-based day programs.

They are urging DeWine and other state officials to grant them counsel so that they can fight what they see as a dangerous push toward community settings for all.

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“We don’t feel that the interests of those who require and desire higher levels of care are being protected in this lawsuit,” said the alliance’s Caroline Lahrmann. “There’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Disability Rights Ohio and other legal advocates sued the state on March 31 over what they say is a discriminatory services system that traps thousands of people in institutions — or puts them at risk of moving to one — because they can’t get the support needed to live and work in their communities.

About 5,800 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live in so-called intermediate-care facilities, or residential centers with eight or more residents. According to Disability Rights Ohio, more than 2,000 of them want community services instead, but languish on years-long waiting lists for one of the Medicaid waivers that would pay for non-institutional care.

Disability Rights Ohio is a nonprofit organization that serves as Ohio’s federally designated protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities. All states are required to have a disabilities advocate, which has the authority to provide legal representation under all federal and state laws — including suing states for violating such statutes as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The agency’s executive director, Michael Kirkman, said he doesn’t know of any states that have provided legal representation to other interested parties.

“I don’t know of any vehicle or mechanism for them to be given counsel through the state,” he said. “It would be highly, highly unusual.”

A spokeswoman for DeWine’s office said officials have received the letter and are evaluating the request.

Attorneys for Disability Rights Ohio say the lawsuit doesn’t seek to shut down residential centers and programs, but rather wants to make sure that people with developmental disabilities have the right to choose where they live and work.

“I think there’s just such a fundamental disagreement about what we’re trying to achieve,” Kirkman said of families who are against the lawsuit. “For all the people who were asking, ‘Why now?’, many others are saying, ‘It’s about time.'”

But Lahrmann and others with Disability Advocacy Alliance say the lawsuit could easily lead to reduced services and options for Ohioans who, like her children, have severe disabilities and complex needs.

She said Disability Rights Ohio should wage its legal battle on behalf of the six named plaintiffs, not “tens of thousands of people around the state.”

© 2016 The Columbus Dispatch
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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