COLUMBUS, Ohio — A 2-year-old court battle between the state of Ohio and legal advocates for Ohioans with developmental disabilities can proceed as a class-action lawsuit, a federal judge ruled late last week.

Chief Judge Edmund A Sargus Jr. of the Southern District of Ohio granted the request in part, but also imposed a somewhat tighter definition of the class than the one sought initially by plaintiffs.

Disability Rights Ohio filed the lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of six people who said the state’s disabilities system violates the federal Americans With Disabilities Act by leaving them and thousands of others stuck in institutions — or at risk of moving to one — because they can’t get the services they need to live and work in their communities.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

According to the decision, Sargus certified a class of “All Medicaid-eligible adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities residing in the state of Ohio who, on or after March 31, 2016, are qualified for home and community-based services, and, after receiving options counseling, express that they are interested in community-based services.”

Disability Rights Ohio and its legal partners said the judge’s ruling means that the five remaining plaintiffs now represent the interests of thousands of Ohioans.

“The resolution of our case will determine whether the state is violating the rights of class members, and if so, fix that by expanding access to community-based services,” said Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, director of advocacy and assistant executive director of Disability Rights Ohio.

The Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities said in an emailed statement that officials there are reviewing the order. Ohio “remains committed to empowering individuals with disabilities and their families,” the department said, and “continues to make great progress in providing opportunities for people with disabilities to choose where they want to live.”

Class-action status has been an emotional issue for families who don’t want the lawsuit to speak for them. They fear that loved ones could be forced to leave high-quality residential centers and move into unsafe community settings, where their complex needs won’t be met.

Dozens of them fought for a voice and Sargus granted them a seat at the table in July.

The class-action ruling is disappointing, said Caroline Lahrmann, whose two children live in a residential center known as an “intermediate care facility.”

Families will continue to push for the ICF choice, Lahrmann said in an email. The bottom line, she added, is that, “All choices — ICF and community options — should be communicated to individuals and families and adequately funded.”

© 2018 The Columbus Dispatch
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC