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Advocates find ways to protect rights of Ohioans with disabilities during COVID-19

Susan Koller
Posted at 8:22 PM, Aug 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-13 23:31:25-04

MASSILLON, Ohio — From Zoom meetings to virtual conferences, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we do many things.

For Ohioans with disabilities, that includes how the facilities in which some of them live are monitored.

Susan Koller is a board member for Disability Rights Ohio. Originally from Dayton, she has cerebral palsy and lives in Beechwood Home, a long-term care facility in Cincinnati. She's lived there for about two and a half years.

"It’s not your typical nursing home," Koller, 38, said.

But during the pandemic, it is considered a nursing home and is therefore under restrictions, with no visitors allowed.

"The reality, even though I hate it, is that people with disabilities of all kinds are a very vulnerable population," Koller said.

While she doesn't feel this way about Beechwood, Koller said of others at different facilities, "You are nervous about raising your voice, because you're like, 'What if I raise my voice and someone gets upset with me? Will that impact my care?'"

Koller emphasized the importance of outside monitoring at facilities.

"I'm lucky to be in a pretty good facility, but we are very vulnerable," Koller said, adding, "Not so much for me, but imagine the people who can't talk, who can't speak, who can't articulate. They need someone to be their ally."

That monitoring is done by Disability Rights Ohio, a nonprofit designated by the governor that has the legal authority to access facilities across the state, unaccompanied, in order to protect and advocate for Ohioans with disabilities.

"Our mission is to advocate and protect the legal, civil and human rights of all people with disabilities in the state of Ohio," said Amy Price, an advocate with DRO.

Price said DRO goes into facilities ranging from nursing homes and state and private psychiatric hospitals to residential treatment facilities, jails, and prisons. But DRO was not able to do its typical monitoring in the form of onsite visits during COVID-19.

"Even if we weren't feeling sick, we recognized that we could, in fact, spread COVID-19 into those facilities if we continued to go in," Price said.

In order to continue monitoring, but in a safe way that reduces risk to residents and staff, DRO decided to implement remote monitoring. Advocates can meet with administrators at the facility via Skype or Zoom, get a virtual tour to assess conditions and possible safety issues, and speak with residents, either one-on-one via video call or with a facility staff member there as well.

Koller said virtual monitoring is "a very ingenious way to do it," adding that she "wouldn't have ever thought of that."

"Maybe it's not as good as in-person, but we're all having to adapt," Koller said. "Obviously, we'd all be happy to get back to normal, but you've got to do what you can in these weird times. Any monitoring is better than none."

Andrea Bucci is the CEO of Heartland Behavioral Healthcare in Massillon, one of six regional psychiatric hospitals in Ohio through the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OhioMHAS).

"We provide short-term intensive treatment to patients in an inpatient setting, as well as comprehensive care to patients committed by the criminal court system," Bucci said.

Of remote monitoring, Bucci said, "I thought the process was absolutely great. It was streamlined, it was organized. It was efficient."

She noted that monitoring was important.

"Having DRO is essentially like having an extra set of eyes. So it's always beneficial," Bucci said. "Plus, they're the experts when it comes to patient rights, which is very valuable."

Bucci added that it's also comforting to patients.

"Knowing that there is an agency looking out for them and protecting their rights wholeheartedly is supportive to their recovery process," Bucci said.

Of course, there were some challenges, according to Price. There were fewer opportunities to go in-depth at each facility, and without having DRO there in person, Price said they may have had fewer chances to talk with residents who might have come up to them.

But it also created efficiency by eliminating travel time. For instance, Price said from DRO's Columbus office, traveling to Cuyahoga County could take two or more hours. Factoring in a round-trip drive and four to five hours of time at the facility, visiting just one place could take an entire day.

From October 1 through the beginning of March, Price said DRO visited 18 facilities.

From April through mid-June, that number rose to 86 virtual visits, approximately half of which were nursing homes.

"It did afford us the opportunity to see more places, meet some facilities that we hadn't met before," Price said.

Going forward, when COVID-19 is passed, Price said the organization would likely blend remote monitoring and in-person visits. But, during a pandemic, it has been a way to continue doing work DRO deems essential.

"It is essentially important, especially during these times, because people with disabilities are not always thought of first," Price said.

"I can't stress how crucial or important having someone like DRO, how crucial it is that they are working on our behalf and really looking out for us and knowing what we need and helping us find what we need," Koller said.

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