Apparently, If You're Disabled, The State Can Decide Whether You're Allowed To Live With Your Spouse

If the state can make decisions about where you can live and potentially withhold aid or restrict access to your spouse, that threatens your civil liberties and personal freedoms.
Publish date:
April 23, 2014
ableism, marriage, disability rights, institutions, living together

When Paul Forziano, 31, and Hava Samuels, 36, got married last year, they planned on doing what most people do after marriage: moving in together. It's par for the course when you exchange vows and rings, and many married people would argue it's an integral part of sharing their lives together. Marriage is waking up in the morning beside your spouse, and taking evening walks together, and cooking meals together, not just the ceremony and some nice jewelry.

They were fortunate: they're heterosexual, so the state didn't oppose their marriage or refuse to recognize it. But in another sense, they weren't so lucky. As disabled people residing in group community placements, they were denied shared housing -- though at least they were allowed to get married in the first place, in a world where marital rights for disabled people are sometimes denied. The administrators of their institutions said that it would be "fraught with difficulties" to house the two, who both have intellectual disabilities, together.

In 2013, their situation made headlines and was of particular interest to the disability community, which tends to pay attention to violations of our civil rights. The ability to choose where you live and who you live with should be pretty fundamental, and that's a right that many people assume is theirs without question -- though, of course, people of any disability status can face constraints like economic factors and racial discrimination that limit housing choices. To be told flat out, however, that you cannot live with your spouse is a situation primarily unique to institutionalized people.

Both Samuels and Forziano appear to want to stay in group living situations, and they're benefiting from state assistance to pay for their placement and help keep them in the community. All they want is what other married couples want by right: the ability to be together.

After the 2013 denial, they filed suit, charging discrimination on the basis of disability status. Their group homes had refused to accommodate them, claiming they weren't capable of living together and caring for each other. Maryhaven, the facility where Samuels lived, indicated that it didn't think she was psychologically capable of having a spouse -- and refused to provide sexual education for her so she could make informed choices about her sexuality and psychologically prepare for marriage.

This kind of attitude is common with disabled people. There's a root assumption that disabled people don't or can't have sex, and aren't interested in it -- and also that disabled people aren't sexually autonomous beings who might be attracted to one another, or to nondisabled people, for that matter. This freezes disabled people into a state of artificial naivety, one that undermines their ability to make choices for themselves.

After battling back and forth with Maryhaven and Forziano's group home, the couple ultimately found a placement at a different facility which allowed them to live together. Their battle wasn't over, though. Concerned about the possibility of future problems when it came to living together, as well as the rights of other married disabled couples who live in group homes and other institutional settings, they decided to continue with their lawsuit.

The issue wasn't just their rights as a couple, but the rights of all disabled couples, and the larger civil rights issue. Can the state, and entities of the state, tell you where to live after marriage? Should the state be allowed to dictate that you can't share your life with your spouse? Over twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, these are the kind of routine discriminations that disabled people encounter. Couples should not have to ask these questions, and should never have to live in doubt about their ability to be taken seriously as autonomous sexual beings who can make choices for themselves.

After a year in the courts, their suit has been thrown out by US District Court Judge Leonard Wexler, who argued that the situation was rooted in not in ADA-protected accommodations, but in their married status:

... all arise out of defendants' purported refusal to accommodate the couple's desire to cohabitate as a married couple in either Independent Group Home Living or Maryhaven. Such alleged discrimination is based not on the couple's disabilities, but rather on their status as a married couple.

The short version of his opinion: this isn't a disability issue.

But the circumstances of the case, legal judgment aside, seem to suggest the contrary. How frequently do situations arise where married couples are not permitted to live together by outside forces governed by the state and subject to, say, federal law? By saying that the state was allowed to withhold care and a shared placement to a married couple, the judge was ignoring the fact that their disabilities obviously played a key role in this decision.

This is a suit where two group homes collectively decided that they should make decisions about how disabled people should live and who they should love. They determined that they'd prefer to force a married couple to live three miles apart and see each other on a schedule dictated by other people. These decisions were made on the basis of disability status. The couple was disabled, and more yet, the homes involved specifically cited their disabilities as defenses for their decisions.

Yet, Judge Wexler felt this wasn't a case of disability discrimination.

This is a blow for institutionalized disabled people as well as those in community placements and others who rely on state support to complete tasks of daily living and live comfortably. If the state can make decisions about where you can live and potentially withhold aid or restrict access to your spouse, that threatens your civil liberties and personal freedoms. While Judge Wexler may feel he has a solid legal basis for defending his decision, the case will go to appeal -- and I, for one, hope the appellate judge feels differently.