Dispelling the Myth: Texas’ Defense of Institutionalization

Like many people in the disability community, I have been shocked by the recent one-sided media coverage of the upcoming closure of the State Supported Living Center (SSLC) here in Austin (including this, this, and this). I will have much more to say on this, but I wanted to address some key points first.

1) Make no mistake about it: the SSLC is an institution and institutions segregate people with disabilities by design. They are also part of a tangled history of marginalization, sterilization, eugenics, and what I would call a systematic erasure of a significant portion of the population and a denial of this kinship world.

2) Institutions are not an inevitable aspect of disability services. Indeed, as of 2011 there are 14 states that have no institutions for people with disabilities. This is not because these states have chosen to throw these individuals to the wolves; rather, they provide services to individuals in their communities.

3) In the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. ruling of 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of community living. This decision asserted that Individuals with disabilities have the right to live in the least restrictive environment, dealing a decisive blow to the “unjustified isolation” of this population. Note that this happened 15 years ago. 15.

4) It is unquestionably cheaper to provide services to people with disabilities in their communities. Institutions are an unbelievable financial vacuum. According to the National Council on Disability, it costs over four times as much to provide services in an institution as opposed to community homes and services. That’s an average of nearly $190,000 per year, rather than $42,000.

5) Despite how the media has framed this issue, Texas is hardly breaking new ground by closing institutions and moving people with disabilities into the community. Far from it. Indeed, according to UCP 18 states currently house 80% or more of their residents with disabilities in home-like and community settings. Which brings me to my last point…

6) Texas consistently ranks at the very bottom in terms of disability inclusion statistics. According to current figures, we are ranked 50th, ahead of only Mississippi. Texas operates a whopping 13 state facilities housing 3,787. The average cost per person is just over $185,000.

In reading the recent media coverage of the Austin SSLC’s closure, one would never know that these are not new debates or that the information on processes, practices, and expectations regarding community living in much of the country is widely available. The current media narrative is that the evil state of Texas is trying to abandon people with disabilities and we as good liberal citizens must fight to protect them. The simple truth, however, is that the state abandoned this population long ago.  And, in their ignorance, the public is complicit.

When it comes to disability services, Texas is a wasteland. There are a few exceptions (e.g., deafblind services), but the programs that are taken for granted in many places continue to be cast as fantasies here. Texas is notorious around disability circles in much of the country as a place where people with disabilities are cut off from fundamental services they would likely receive elsewhere – including community housing and inclusion. Remember: we are only better than Mississippi in regard to inclusion – even now, at a time of incredible prosperity. While I do not want to portray community inclusion efforts as utopian (and I have written on this here), I am stunned that the public is being misled to think that institutions are a pillar of disability services and must be maintained. Paternalism, ignorance, and ableism converge in these accounts, resulting in a surprisingly successful effort to erase decades of nationwide disability rights successes from the local framework.

The simple truth is that Texas does not provide community-based living services because it doesn’t want to and it hasn’t had to. The state and far too many its people (including journalists from liberal media outlets like The Austin Chronicle) vehemently defend an outdated, fundamentally discriminatory system of institutionalization, pretending that there is no alternative. This is, at its core, a lie. And the people have a right to know.

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