published Friday, June 17th, 2011

Disabilities education urged

Andy Wade, president of People First of Rome, right, speaks to people attending the Olmstead decision celebration Thursday at Dalton City Hall. The decision announced the right of individuals with disabilities to live outside of state institutions.
Andy Wade, president of People First of Rome, right, speaks to people attending the Olmstead decision celebration Thursday at Dalton City Hall. The decision announced the right of individuals with disabilities to live outside of state institutions.
Photo by Allison Carter.

DALTON, Ga.—Doctors said Tammy Ruggles would never walk and recommended she be placed in an institution.

Fortunately for Ruggles — who was born with cerebral palsy — her adoptive mother refused to listen.

“She always told me, ‘You might not be able to do things as fast as other people, but you can do as much,’” Ruggles said.

With the help of her mother, Ruggles learned to walk when she was 4. She graduated from high school and worked at various jobs. Now 45, she is enrolled to start classes at Dalton State College in August to become a special education teacher.

Ruggles, the president of People First of Northwest Georgia, shared her story at a gathering Thursday at Dalton City Hall celebrating the Olmstead decision, a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities. People First is a self-advocacy group operated by and for people with disabilities.

Ruggles said the decision, which was filed in Atlanta, helped to raise awareness about disabilities and ensure she could live in her community. But Dalton needs more education about people with disabilities, she added.

She lost several jobs at local restaurants because managers decided she wasn’t needed, she said. As a teacher, she hopes to encourage children by her example.

“When they see me, I want to encourage kids that they can go to the extreme,” she said. “Dalton is not educated enough with people with disabilities. It is up to us to fight for ourselves.”

Talley Wells, an attorney, told the gathering the Olmstead decision has brought about much-needed change in Georgia, but the state needs to make more improvements to its services for the mentally and physically disabled.

Wells is the director of the Mental Health and Disability Rights Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the group that argued the Olmstead case.

“It started out as this small case, but it became the most important civil rights case in the last 30 years,” he said.

Wells likened the case to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended racial segregation in schools. The Olmstead case helped end segregation for people with disabilities, he said.

There are still thousands of people living in nursing homes and hospitals who want to live in their communities, he said. Often they could do so at less expense for the state, Wells said.

In October, Georgia negotiated a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that advocates mental health patients be treated at home.

Partly because of that settlement, Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome will close June 30. Wells said moving people into the communities is good, but he fears Georgia has not yet done enough to make sure the people sent home from the hospital will get the support they need.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “The goal is to get our brothers and sisters back in the community — [as] working and contributing members in the community.”

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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