The Simon Heng column

Fifteen years after the introduction of the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA), disabled people and their supporters have
been camped out on the marble floors of the State House in
Nashville, Tennessee. For the past nine weeks they have been
protesting about the proposed cuts to the state Medicare budget,
which provides care for those who do not have adequate private
health insurance.

The state governor proposes to take about 300,000 people out of the
Medicare programme and “rationalise” health care spending for those
left. For many disabled people, they claim, this will mean a choice
between paying for medication or food. For about 100, who have been
provided with ventilation equipment, hitherto allowing them to live
in their own homes with their families, this will mean an enforced
move to nursing homes.

Protesters say this would in effect be imprisonment, as these 100
individuals would not have a choice of where they live and would be
unable to access the wider environment. One reading of this is that
it is an infringement of their rights under the ADA.

The governor has responded by attempting to cut off supplies of
food and water to the protesters, and by saying that he does care
about the welfare of the people needing ventilation services, but
chooses to provide this in an institutional setting. This is, by
the way, the state that fought the introduction of the legislation,
declaring it unconstitutional.

The act has had a direct influence on our thinking about disability
rights, and our own Disability Discrimination Act 1995, although
the right to choose where one lives as a disabled person is, I
understand, being proposed as a matter of policy, rather than
something that is legally enforceable. Would we be able to organise
such a protest in this country if our services were under this kind
of threat?

In 15 years, will we feel so strongly about our rights under the
act that we would take this kind of action? A few years ago, we
protested against potential budget cuts within our local-authority
– for an afternoon.

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