News from Disability Rights Ohio is the monthly newsletter from Disability Rights Ohio, providing information and updates about case work and activities of the agency, and other disability-related news.
As Professor of Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, specializing in special education law, Ruth Colker saw a need.
“I have been doing volunteer work with parents of children in special education for a decade,” she says. “My experience is that a parent would call and tell me how terrible their experience was, how the school wasn’t giving the right services, and then I would go to the IEP meeting and everything would get worked out. I don’t think I’m great at it or anything, I think the school districts just behave differently when parents bring an advocate with them.”
In her Special Education Advocacy course at the law school, she teaches her students to do the same kind of work, hoping that some of them will go on to do it professionally. She knew that one attorney doing that work full time could make a big difference for a lot of families, and she believed that DRO would be a great organization to lead that effort. However, she also understood that DRO did not have the funding to send a lawyer to IEP meetings, but finding outside funding could change that.
“I pitched the idea to DRO Executive Director Michael Kirkman and the Dean of the law school, and they immediately got to work finding funding,” she remembers. “It took a couple of tries, but eventually, the Columbus Foundation Coyle Special Education Fellowship at Disability Rights Ohio was created.”
Because the funding comes from The Columbus Foundation, the Coyle program serves Franklin County and its contiguous counties: Pickaway, Fairfield, Licking, Delaware, Union and Madison. For families in those counties, DRO’s Coyle Fellow, Taryn Weiss, can attend IEP meetings, make phone calls on behalf of parents and resolve issues at the lowest possible level.
“It helps to level the playing field and give parents the edge they need,” says DRO Senior Attorney and Education Team Leader Kristin Hildebrant. “The largest number of calls DRO gets are from clients in psychiatric hospitals, but special education calls are a close second. We cannot possibly provide this level of service for all of those calls, so it’s been great to have this extra funding. It’s nice to be able to meet a known need.”
Since the program started in September 2015, Weiss has had 104 cases and attended IEP meetings with 34 families. All of those cases have had positive outcomes, which often require creative thinking.
“The schools are willing to work with us, but the answer isn’t always obvious,” she says. “Sometimes you need to get all of the data and all of the people in the room and really look at what might be happening. Sometimes it can take several meetings if we set up data collection or testing.”
In one situation, a child was acting out in social studies and reading classes but thriving in science and math. Staff came into the meeting insistent that the student simply had behavioral problems, but Weiss suggested they have a reading comprehension assessment done. She suspected he wasn’t able to read well but was too embarrassed to say so, causing his behaviors. The assessment showed that she was correct, and with the proper supports, the student is now doing well.
It’s the kind of work Weiss hoped to do when she accepted the Coyle Fellowship.
“Sometimes all I have to do is make a phone call to the school or inform parents of their rights. Sometimes we have to schedule a meeting,” she says. “But when I finish a case with a positive outcome, I know that I’ve made that child’s educational life easier, and I know that I’m taking away stress and worry for the parents. It makes it really great to come into work every day.”
Parents and guardians with children in schools in Franklin, Pickaway, Fairfield, Licking, Delaware, Union and Madison counties can take advantage of the Coyle program by calling DRO at 800-282-9181 and selecting option 2. All cases start with the intake department, which is open from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays. Callers can leave a message 24 hours a day and someone will return their call during business hours.
Parents and guardians outside of Central Ohio are also encouraged to call. In cases where DRO is not able to provide representation, parents are always given ample information to help them advocate for their child, including the ability to talk by phone with a Senior Advocate who specializes in special education issues.
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In Ohio’s state-run psychiatric hospitals, all patients have the right “at all times to be treated with consideration and respect for the patient's privacy and dignity,” according to Ohio Revised Code 5122.29(B). They also have the right to be safe from physical or emotional abuse. So when DRO Advocate Liz Poprocki got calls from transgender clients at different state hospitals complaining that they were being mistreated by staff and other patients, she knew she had to act.
“Our clients reported that they were being denied access to bathrooms of their gender identity, were being called by their legal names rather than their authentic names, were not allowed to room with peers of their identified gender, were being directly judged and disrespected by staff and were being given no protection from peers who were threatening them," Poprocki reports. "These are basic rights violations to a person’s dignity, autonomy, and displayed a lack of respect and consideration. They were being placed in separate, isolated rooms, sometimes even the unit’s seclusion room, if there were no other rooms available. When someone is in treatment for mental illness, these situations can further traumatize them or trigger other behavioral responses—which is exactly what was happening.”
She began by contacting each hospital to get a copy of their nondiscrimination policy. None of them had one that was based on best practices. So she wrote a letter to the hospital director at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (ODMHAS), explaining why these rights violations were injurious to individuals with mental illness in the state hospitals. Eventually, executive leadership at the department got involved and organized a meeting to start working on developing a new statewide policy. The first draft was completed on January 4, 2016.
“I met with Equality Ohio at that point to get their input about the policy, and together we worked with the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Human Rights Campaign to ensure that Ohio was implementing best practices,” Poprocki says. “We submitted our edits, and most of them were accepted.”
All state hospitals and their related community support programs will be required to adopt the policy and provide training to all staff, from clerical staff up through nursing staff, doctors and directors. ODMHAS, DRO and Equality Ohio will help with implementation and linking hospitals with appropriate LGBTQI organizations to conduct the training.
“Our clients showed us that transgender persons were not being afforded the same rights as everyone else who is a patient in a state hospital,” Poprocki explains. “Because they spoke up, we have been able to protect the rights of people in similar situations across the state. Other disability rights organizations from other parts of the country are now looking at Ohio’s policy as evidence of a progressive standard of care. I think this is something we can be proud of.”
In February, Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) released a new report that outlines gaps in enforcement of the Ohio Department of Education's (ODE) rule regulating restraint and seclusion in schools. The report also makes recommendations to improve oversight of schools' implementation of the rule.
In 2013, upon the urging of Disability Rights Ohio, the ACLU of Ohio, and other advocates, the Ohio Department of Education established a rule limiting the use of restraint and seclusion in Ohio schools to situations where there is an imminent risk of physical harm. The rule requires implementation of an alternative to restraint and seclusion, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a validated approach to reduce or eliminate any need for restraint or seclusion. In 2015 the same advocates convinced the Ohio General Assembly to extend the rule to community (charter) schools.
DRO's report highlights that the Ohio Department of Education has not developed a system for monitoring schools for compliance of the rule; the reporting by schools is inadequate; parents are not receiving required notification of incidents; there are insufficient recourse for parents and students when the rule has been violated; and there is no coordinated effort among agencies to thoroughly investigate incidents.
"Ending unnecessary and often dangerous uses of restraint and seclusion in Ohio's schools requires more than putting a policy in place," said Michael Kirkman, Executive Director of Disability Rights Ohio. "The lack of leadership, resources, and robust enforcement is placing too many of Ohio's children and those who teach them at risk of serious harm and continued trauma," continued Kirkman.
The report recommends the development of stronger monitoring and reporting systems; implementation of consistent reporting, notification, and documentation requirements; and improved cross-agency collaboration on investigations of restraint and seclusion.
NewsNet5 Cleveland – Disability Rights Ohio report finds state fails to enforce rule on dangerous discipline methods
ABC6 Columbus – Discipline or Abuse? Uncovering a Controversial Form of Discipline
Associated Press – Report finds enforcement gap in Ohio school seclusion, restraint policy
Ohio Public News Service – “Hit or Miss” Reporting on Handling “Unruly” Ohio Students?
Columbus Dispatch – Ohio schools still restrain too many kids with little oversight, report says
Dayton Daily News – Restraint, seclusion remain common in Ohio schools
In a precedent-setting opinion issued by an administrative law judge from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), three workers with disabilities were awarded minimum wage going forward as well as back pay from Seneca Re-Ad, a sheltered workshop run by the Seneca County Board of Developmental Disabilities. The original petition was filed by Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) and the National Federation of the Blind, with the support of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and the Baltimore law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP.
Joe Magers, Pam Steward, and Mark Felton had been paid an average of $2.50 an hour for more than three years and are among the first workers with disabilities ever to invoke the petition process to seek a review of their wages by the USDOL. The administrative law judge found that Seneca Re-Ad has not proven that the petitioners’ disabilities keep them from accomplishing the work. Further, the decision holds that their wages have not been calculated correctly. Therefore, Seneca must pay at least the minimum wage.
“The opinion highlights that each of our clients brings valuable employment skills to the Seneca Re-Ad facility, and their value as workers should be respected,” says DRO Attorney Barbara Corner. “People with disabilities are full and equal members of society and should be paid fairly.”
"Many people are shocked when they find out that it is legal to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage," said Samantha Crane, Legal Director and Director of Public Policy at ASAN. "But what's even more surprising is how rare this type of enforcement action has been until now. We hope this decision puts other workshops on notice that they won't get away with this sort of exploitation."
Mark A. Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: "This decision cuts through the low expectations based on stereotypes and misconceptions that undergird the antiquated and discriminatory subminimum-wage employment model. The National Federation of the Blind is proud of our role in helping these workers to earn compensation that reflects the skilled work that they perform. We believe that this decision sends a strong signal that subminimum wages are an idea whose time has long since passed."
Toledo Blade – Judge: Seneca Co. workshop owes back pay
Disability.gov – Historic Decision Orders Fair Pay for Employees of Sheltered Workshop
Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson discussed proposals in Gov. Kasich’s recent mid-biennium budget review that would impact people with disabilities. DRO Executive Director Michael Kirkman is quoted.
Columbus Dispatch – Kasich proposal shifts care for young disabled children
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are requiring Ohio to change its day programming options for people with disabilities to make them more integrated into the community. Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson wrote about those changes, including quotes from DRO Director of Advocacy Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt.
Columbus Dispatch – Ohioans with disabilities face changes to sheltered workshops
Looking toward November’s election, Ann Sanner of the Associated Press wrote a round-up of several lawsuits pending against Ohio’s elections officials. DRO’s lawsuit on behalf of blind voters is mentioned.
Associated Press – Ohio’s election laws under scrutiny as focus shifts to fall
As of today, HCR 32 has had one hearing in the Ohio House State Government Committee on Feb. 24, 2016.
With help from DRO, a young woman is enjoying independence thanks to the recent termination of her guardianship.
The individual had a court-appointed guardian. The client desired more freedom and negotiated with her guardian for more independence. The guardian would never follow through with her part of the agreement, and the client became so frustrated with her situation that she ran away from her group home. When she was returned to the home, the guardian punished her by placing even more restrictions and controls on the client.
The county DD board contacted DRO to report that the client had an overly restrictive guardian who was preventing the client from living in her least restrictive environment. A disability rights attorney contacted the client and listened to her story. The woman shared her desire and plans to achieve more independence. Not only did she want her restrictions lifted, but she felt that she could make decisions about her life and live safely on her own. DRO provided her with information about her rights in a guardianship and how to request a guardianship review hearing in the probate court. The court instructed the guardian to schedule an independent expert evaluation with a psychologist to determine if the woman still needed a guardian.
The psychologist who provided the assessment agreed with the client and wrote an evaluation stating that the woman was capable of making decisions for herself and recommending that the guardianship be terminated. After the positive evaluation, the guardian filed a motion to remove the woman's restrictions. About two weeks later, the guardian filed a motion to terminate the guardianship that was accepted by the court. The client is now able to control her own life and make decisions about important things that affect her. She continues to receive services from the DD board and has a payee to assist with her finances.
We believe people with disabilities should be allowed to participate in the community and have a say in how they live, just like people who live without a disability. There is always more to do, but we need your help.
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