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Editorial: Dignity for the disabled

What started amid strife in a federal court ended with a party last week in the court itself, as a judge took himself off a 15-year-old case and a matter of fundamental human dignity won the day.

That sort of celebration gives us all a lift. The specifics of Rolland v. Patrick contain lessons in tenacity, endurance and the best results our judicial system can produce.

The case bears the last name of Loretta Rolland, its lead plaintiff and one of those who traveled to U.S. District Court in Springfield May 8 to mark its official end.

Rolland is not destined to be famous, but it is from her tough experience that thousands of people won greater freedom of movement and association today — and for years to come.

Even those who follow the news may have forgotten this case.

It never received as much attention as earlier efforts to liberate patients from the Northampton State Hospital or the Belchertown State School. But it shared with those deinstitutionalization drives the premise that disadvantaged people deserve to live with greater freedom in the community. And so it was back in 1998 that Northampton-based advocates with the Center for Public Representation took on Rolland’s case.

She was then one of hundreds of developmentally disabled people walled off from normal society through confinement in a nursing home. The center found men and women in similar predicaments and joined them as plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Just four years into the litigation, Rolland, now 71, moved from a nursing home into an apartment at St. Michael’s House in Northampton. She now lives in an apartment in a group home in Holden.

Last week, people who devoted years of their lives to this case recalled how antagonistic the parties were at the outset. They took up the tools of litigation and did battle.

Listening to it all was U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman. For years, Neiman relied upon a court monitor, Lyn Rucker, to investigate whether his rulings in favor of the plaintiffs were being honored by the state.

Those close to the case say big gains were logged after the 2007 appointment of Elin M. Howe as commissioner of the state Department of Developmental Services. Under her leadership, the state allocated enough money to expand residential services and get people out of nursing homes.

In time, Rucker told the Gazette last week, the contentiousness drained out of the case. The lives of people like Loretta Rolland were improved due to the concerted efforts of their legal allies. Then last week, the magistrate declared the objectives met and the case closed.

Steven J. Schwartz, the center’s litigation director, said his team went after inadequate care of the developmentally disabled in 290 nursing homes in the state. In time, the suit succeeded in moving about 1,800 people out of nursing homes and into settings that allowed them to live with greater freedom and respect.

Schwartz and his colleagues did more than help Massachusetts residents. The case inspired lawsuits around the U.S. and Schwartz said some of Neiman’s rulings have been adopted in other courts. That’s a long reach for a case that’s been out of the news for more than a decade. Rolland v. Patrick may have not garnered many headlines, but it changed lives and will continue to do so.

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