Marriage: ’til death do you part, right? Unless, it turns out, you’re disabled, in which case you can only be together when the people around you say so, as Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels learned when they married and their respective group homes refused to accommodate them. After a lengthy legal battle, a New York judge has dismissed their case, stating that they couldn’t show sufficient evidence of discrimination. While they’re headed back to the drawing board with an appeal, the judge’s commentary on the case could be bad news for the disability community.
It all started when the two met eight years ago during a day program at the Maryhaven Center of Hope. Both have developmental disabilities, and live in group settings so they can access the support and care they need to live comfortably. The two became fast friends and their friendship developed into something more, which evolved into a long engagement, and then a wedding in early 2013. They, and their parents, assumed that they’d be able to find accommodations together as a married couple, operating under the assumption that married people typically live together after marriage.
However, both group homes turned them down. Samuels’ day home suggested that it didn’t think she was ready for marriage, and both thought it would be too disruptive or too difficult to accommodate a married couple. Her home also refused to provide her with sexual education or resources she could use to make informed decisions about her sexuality. The decision set off a quest that become national news as the couple looked for a place to call home together — and ultimately settled in a placement offered by another facility.
While this might have been the end of their story, they and their parents had concerns. What would happen in the future if they needed an alternative placement? Could they face a similarly discriminatory situation that would deprive them of each other’s company? For that matter, what about other disabled people facing the same problem? People with a wide variety of disabilities fall in love and decide to marry, and their right to spend their lives with their partners should be protected.
So they took the case to court, suing their former group homes on the grounds of disability discrimination. The landmark case positioned both parties as people who had a right to make choices about where they lived and who they lived with — and Judge Leonard Wexler didn’t agree. He believed that any discrimination that took place was on the grounds of their marital status, not disability status, and thus that the suit didn’t have merit. His decision to dismiss the case may reflect larger precedents in caselaw as well as legislation, or it may not. That remains to be seen when the couple takes the suit to an appellate court for another opinion.
The case certainly presents an unusual legal precedent: disabled people are rather alone in that where they live can be dictated by outside forces like the state as well as administrators of group homes and similar facilities. This can result in separation from their spouses, which would seem like a form of disability discrimination, and as the case winds its way through the courts, it has the potential to become something even larger.
Like Olmstead, a historic legal decision affirming the right of disabled people to live in their communities, this case could become another proving ground for a key cornerstone of disability rights: the ability to share your life with your partner.
Photo credit: Kumon.