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Oregon lawmakers consider new protections for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities

The bill would end forced commitment of those with intellectual disabilities, and stop public mental health services from turning away patients because of their designations.
Bradley W. Parks
The bill would end forced commitment of those with intellectual disabilities, and stop public mental health services from turning away patients because of their designations.

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent the government from forcefully committing people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Right now, a court can hold someone with one of these designations in a facility if it finds they pose a threat or can’t care for themselves. That includes 16 people currently, according to the most recent state data.

At a hearing in the Oregon Senate’s Human Services Committee Wednesday, officials testified that this statute likely violates Medicare guidelines and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Portland attorney Chris O'Connor told lawmakers he believes it also has questionable constitutionality.

“While normally your state and federal Constitution protects you from being arrested, seized and searched on the street—taken out of your life—unless there's probable cause of a crime," said O'Connor. "Oregon has created an elaborate bureaucratic framework over the decades to bypass those constitutional protections.”

Anna Lansky is the interim director of the state Office of Developmental Disability Services. She said the law is a relic of how the state used to segregate these groups for care.

“Since then, we have closed all of our institutions," said Lansky. "And we have committed to providing fully home and community-based services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with the goal of fully integrating them into their communities.”

Lansky said if the statute was gone, the 16 individuals held under it currently would still have access to the same services on a voluntary basis.

However, Channa Newell with the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office said it opposes a repeal until there’s an alternative in place, raising concerns that a premature repeal could result in tragedy.

"In our line of work, we encounter the rare situations where a person experiencing [Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities] demonstrates dangerous behavior that puts themselves or others in harm's way," said Newell. "And in those circumstances, a civil commitment...may be the only option for keeping that person and those around them safe."

If approved by the legislature and signed into law, Senate Bill 1522 would go into effect July 2025.

In this screenshot, Gabrielle Gudeon speaks at the public hearing on SB 1522.
Oregon Legislature
Gabrielle Gudeon is the Executive Director of the Oregon Self Advoacy Coallition. In this screenshot, she speaks at a public hearing for SB 1522 on Feb. 7, 2024.

"We are adults"

Also included in the bill is language that would prevent government mental health services from turning away patients with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Gabrielle Guedon is the Executive Director of the Oregon Self Advocacy Coalition. On Wednesday, she testified that psychiatry and therapy can help people like herself thrive, but said they sometimes have to go to an emergency room just to find support.

"We get rejected from programs on a regular basis," she said. "They say they don't understand us or it's not the right fit for them. If we can find that therapist, sometimes they'll go behind our backs and talk to our caregivers, our family, our parents. We are adults.”

In Oregon, a standard intellectual disability designation includes an IQ of 70 or below, alongside impairment to independent function that emerges before adulthood. A developmental disability is when a condition such as autism or epilepsy leads to similar behaviors and needs for support.

The bill would prohibit public bodies from denying treatment for mental illness on these grounds.

"Because they read that diagnosis, they're gonna they look at us differently," said Guedon. "And we're not any different. We're just like everyone else. We have mental health, we get sick. We fall, we get up."

Senate Bill 1522 is scheduled for a potential vote in the Oregon Senate's Human Services Committee on Monday, Feb. 12. If the committee approves it, the measure would be sent to the legislative budget committee due to its potential fiscal impact.

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.