A home of one’s own, either rented or owned, is the cornerstone of independent living for any individual. For people with disabilities this dream – elusive for far too long – is closer to becoming a reality. We have come a long way from the idea that people living with disabilities could only be served and safe in institutions. In a 1999 landmark interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court decided that people with disabilities have a right to receive care in the most integrated setting. That is, people could not be required to live in an institution if a less restrictive alternative could meet their needs. In the twenty years since the meaning and ramifications of the Olmstead decision has not only opened up new housing options but has changed the way we understand disabilities.
Not unlike my own aspiration and those for my children as they grew, people living with challenges hope to find a place to live that they can afford. A place they can live safely surrounded by people who treat them with dignity and respect. This is a sure foundation from which to build a meaningful life. Today, while the systems and services can be daunting and difficult to maneuver and mainstream affordable housing is woefully underfunded, the building blocks are there that have allowed many people to achieve this vision.
In my work with the Supportive Housing Association of NJ (SHA), I have been fortunate to see this progress up close. Moving first to residential settings such as group homes, the trend to smaller and more personal options has followed our evolving understanding that with the right assistance, people can live with a greater level of independence. In 2016, through a generous grant from the New Jersey Council of Developmental Disabilities and along with our partner Autism NJ, SHA published a housing guide entitled The Journey to Community Housing with Support: A Road Map for individuals and Their Families in New Jersey. The guide has been a tremendous resource to individuals and families, by opening them to the possibilities of community housing that had been largely unknown and some that were recently emerging, and by offering important guidance in navigating the complex systems that encompass securing housing and supports. Supportive housing as examined in the guide includes apartments, townhouses, shared housing as well as the traditional group home.
Although the original guide, now in its fourth printing, continues to help people every day to find and secure safe, affordable and accessible homes, in communities near to their loved ones, we found more resources were needed.
Last year, with continued grant funding, SHA embarked upon a video project that created a visual showcase of housing models, including interviews with tenants, support staff, developers, and families. The videos tell the stories of Matt and Dan, two autistic young men, roommates who share a townhouse; Tim, who lives in a high rise apartment building in Irvington and takes the bus to work; and John, who after trying several different environments has found his best match in a small manufactured home in a welcoming community that has block parties where he brings dessert. All receive services on site or outside the home. All live in towns surrounded by neighbors like you and me.
Finally, a fourth video highlights a group home that demonstrates how the use of smart home and assistive technology has exponentially increased people’s capabilities, and therefore opportunities. Video monitoring can assist remotely with decision-making. Reminders, checklists or sequence prompts can offer video or auditory cues enabling individuals to do certain tasks, follow routines or take medications. Technology also can address the issue of safety without undue intrusive oversite. Electronics can monitor if someone falls, leaves their bed at night or is in the bathroom for a long time. Devices add convenience to turn things on or off – such as an unattended stove, set temperature controls, open doors and more. Many systems can be controlled by voice commands. These physical accommodations are particularly helpful for those having physical or cognitive handicaps. People are finding ways to use technology to support them in a myriad of ways and can accomplish many tasks without assistance because of these devices. SHA’s assistive technology resource bulletin offers additional information including accessing state funding that can be utilized to purchase, lease and maintain assistive technology services.
There is no “one size fits all” in supportive housing. Every person is unique. And while there are still many barriers to overcome, many individual’s dreams are being realized in an ever-increasing variety of ways. Enlightening and expanding our understanding of what is possible for people differently abled in the process.
The Venerable Diane Riley, Archdeacon, is Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Association of NJ, a statewide non-profit whose mission is to strengthen and expand supportive housing industry. She is available for workshops and presentations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.