Hundreds of people — including those with developmental disabilities and their family members, advocates and caregivers — listened as Hatch spoke about the former life that was forced on her and the one she is now free to pursue.
“I was moved into four different group homes,” she told the crowd earlier this month. “I didn’t like it. I was treated like a child. My cellphone was taken away. My computer was taken away.”
“I deserve my rights,” she said. “I am very happy to be home now.”
When she was done, the audience members gave her a standing ovation. Then they gave her a second one. Then a third. Afterward, strangers asked for her autograph.
Hatch, who stands no taller than 5 feet and has an IQ of about 50, didn’t set out to be a champion for people with disabilities. But after a Virginia judge declared that she has the right to choose how she lives, Hatch became an immediate symbol of strength among a population used to being assessed by its weaknesses.
“Fifty years from now, the disability community will be talking about the Jenny Hatch case,” said Denille Francis, a board member for the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads. “She really has become a symbol of hope, and to so many families, she is a hero.”
The association has asked Hatch to be its grand marshal for its annual awareness walk and 5K run in October. She has also received speaking invitations from local and out-of-state organizations.
When Hatch delivered the keynote address to the Arc of Virginia state convention Aug. 8, “Jenny deserved that stage and she commanded it,” said Hatch’s attorney, Jonathan Martinis, the legal director for the D.C.-based Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities. He called her case the most significant of his 20-year career and described the judge’s ruling as a “landmark decision.” He said he hopes other courts will recognize that people with disabilities can make their own decisions with support instead of needing a guardian to do it for them.
“We’re all told you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it,” Martinis said. “Well, people with disabilities have been told forever that they can’t do things. Jenny said, ‘I can, and I do.’ ”
Martinis stepped onstage after Hatch and told the audience: “If you support Jenny Hatch, if you want to honor Jenny Hatch, then fight like Jenny Hatch.”
A court battle over control
During a complicated and unusually long guardianship case, Hatch’s fight came less in the form of charging forward than in remaining steadfast.
For a year, she was forced to live in a series of group homes as Newport News Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh weighed a request from Hatch’s mother and stepfather to be appointed her guardians. The couple sought the right to decide, among other things, where Hatch lived and who visited her.