I met a woman this week who may be the leader of our nation’s next big civil rights movement.
Barely 5 feet tall in a regal red jacket, Jenny Hatch commanded the room at American University’s School of Law when she asked: “How do we make sure a person’s rights are not taken away, like mine were?”
Jenny, as the 29-year-old likes to be called, is a high-functioning woman with Down syndrome who won a landmark legal battle against her placement in a Newport News group home this year.
Now she is the symbol of a campaign by advocates, lawyers and others who want to give people with disabilities more control over their lives. They should be judged on what they can do, rather than what they cannot.
Her speech Thursday was the launch of a campaign to find the hundreds — and probably thousands — like her who are high-functioning adults forced to live in group homes or in guardianship situations that they don’t want and, in many cases, don’t need.
For generations, we locked away people with disabilities, warehoused them and kept them separate from the rest of society. It’s still happening today.
As The Washington Post’s Theresa Vargas reported in the summer, Jenny had been living independently and working at a thrift store when a bike accident changed her life. Her mother and stepfather filed for guardianship and placed her in a group home, where she was cut off from her friends and co-workers. She had to quit the job she loved. Her phone was taken away. Her computer was confiscated, and her online passwords were changed. People who wanted to see her had to apply for permission to visit.
All of this was perfectly legal.
She tried to run away four times. “ ‘Just get used to living in a group home,’ ” she said they told her. “I cried every night at the group home. They treated me like a child.”
Jenny’s parents did not believe that she was capable of making her own decisions. Her IQ is about 50, and she often talks about her desire to become president of the United States. (She announced her candidacy twice during her speech at American University.)
They worried about her safety. She gossiped on Facebook, racked up high telephone bills, flirted with boys. She is impulsive.
Um, she sounds like just about every member of Congress. Nobody — regardless of their IQ or educational pedigree — is perfect in making good decisions. (Congress? Hedge fund managers? Subprime mortgage lenders?)
Everybody needs a little help. Jenny has a Medicaid waiver to provide her with the aid she needs to be independent.
And that’s what this human rights campaign — the Jenny Hatch Justice Project — wants everyone to remember.
“People are people,” said Tina Campanella, the chief executive of the D.C.-based Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, “regardless of their IQ.”
Protecting people shouldn’t mean tramping all over their civil rights as American adults.
“Society prefers protection over rights,” said Jenny’s attorney, Jonathan Martinis, the legal director at Quality Trust.
The Jenny Hatch Justice Project will show caseworkers, academics, judges and lawyers that there is another way. Since Jenny won her case, the Quality Trust has helped more than 20 D.C. residents avoid guardianship in favor of supported decision-making — which is the help of friends, family members and professionals.
Jenny, Martinis predicted, is “the rock that starts the avalanche.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.