Dear Friends,

The COVID-19 is affecting all of us. This invisible virus is sweeping across Montana, our country and the world and is disrupting our lives and daily routines. We are all being asked to do our part to “flatten the curve” and practice “social distancing”.

The virus does not discriminate. That being said, policies and practices that are implemented, though intended for the greater good, can be unintentionally discriminatory having negative and disproportionate impacts on people with disabilities. Disability Rights Montana staff is working with and monitoring city, county, and state officials as policies and practices are implemented.

This week we sent a letter to Governor Bullock itemizing steps we believe are necessary to protect Montanans with disabilities. We highlighted discrimination in the delivery and access to medical services, quarantine capacity for people who live in congregate living settings, capacity to provide in-home services, halting termination or redetermination of Medicaid eligibility, flexibility for providers who deliver in-home and day program services, support and expansion of mental health services, and the monitoring of institutionalized settings. We are gratified in knowing that some of our recommendations are being implemented and that others are being considered.

In an effort to support Chief Justice McGrath’s letters to courts of limited jurisdiction encouraging the release of nonviolent offenders, we filed a petition to the supreme court requesting the release of prisoners with disabilities who will be at great risk if this pandemic breaks out in the prison. We are very mindful of community safety and request the release of prisoners with disabilities be handled through the appointment of a special master. The Supreme Court granted our petition and has ordered the parties to full brief the issue.

Many people with disabilities already live in social isolation and now with the outbreak of this pandemic disease we are being asked/required to “social distance” even more. The social distancing requirements add unintentional burden on people with disabilities. We are asking you to be mindful of your neighbors and friends with disabilities who may need a helping hand during this time. Call them and check in. If you suspect unintentional or intentional discrimination, call DRM and report it to us.

Although our office is physically closed, DRM staff are working and available to answer questions and provide information.

We encourage you to call our office and leave a detailed voice message and phone number or email address where we can contact you. Please note that return calls may be made from blocked numbers since staff are working remotely.

DRM will continue to stay in touch with you as we monitor the situation. In the meantime, may you and your loved ones remain healthy and safe. We will get through this together.

Sincerely,

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy