Four years ago, Michael Cooper was camped out outside the Supreme Court.
It was the fall of 1998, and Cooper, 43, along with other advocates for the physically and mentally handicapped, waited all night to hear arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in L.C. vs. Olmstead, a landmark case for the rights of the disabled.
The court ruled, in a 5-4 vote, that the Americans with Disabilities Act means that states cannot keep people with disabilities segregated, consigned to state institutions, when there are viable opportunities for them to live in the community at large.
It was an important decision, Cooper said, because it’s a matter of equal rights.
"Whenever any Virginian is deciding [where] to live, they take into consideration their needs, and make a decision based on those needs," he said. "People with disabilities should have that same option."
Last week, Cooper, got a chance to ensure Virginia lives up to the standards of that decision, as Gov. Mark Warner (D) named him to one of three open slots on the all-volunteer board of a new state agency. The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy will oversee state-run facilities serving the people with physical or developmental disabilities.
<b>"IT’S AN OUTSTANDING</B> appointment," said Del. James Almand (D-47). "We couldn’t have done a better job."
The role will often be investigative, Cooper said, exploring whether or not various institutions around the state are performing up to snuff.
"When a person with a disability in the Commonwealth is being served, if they’re not being served up to standards, they have a right to file a request for an investigation."
In other words, if a Virginian with a developmental disability is being mistreated in a state-run institution, he or she can file a complaint with the VOPA, asking the agency to investigate and offer solutions.
But the VOPA would also be responsible for investigating complaints against state homes or state centers offering services to the disabled, if a Virginian with disabilities believes he or she has been kept from exploring reasonable freedoms – the opportunity to live outside of an institution, or to get a job.
The role of ending dependence on government institutions is familiar for Cooper. He has served for seven years as executive director of the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia.
The Arlington-based organization serves as a resource center for people with disabilities, offering opportunities for them to increase their independence.
Before coming to ECNV, Cooper served on the boards of several Washington-area nonprofits dedicated to the rights of people with disabilities, including the Mental Health Association of Northern Virginia. Cooper, who has struggled with depression, brings additional perspective on ways of living with disabilities.
While he said he was happy to serve on the board of VOPA, Cooper said he wasn’t seeking canonization. "I’m not a person who seeks attention," he said. "I’m just a person who belives in a … system that delivers the services people with disabilities expect."
<b>UNTIL THIS YEAR,</b> there was no reliable way of insuring that Virginia facilities serving the disabled really were delivering on their promises.
The VOPA takes the place of the former Department for Rights of Virginians with Disabilities, a department in the office of Virginia’s governor. It was an arrangement that was rife with problems, Cooper said.
If a state institution was not doing its job, he said, "there was a significant disincentive for the state to pursue all remedies available."
Both the state institution and the department investigating it ultimately led back to the governor, who might stop investigations to avoid bad press, or findings of criminal negligence.
The new agency, established by legislation enacted during the last Assembly session, will move the staff and priorities of the former department out from under the governor. But there are still significant decisions to be made, and that’s where Cooper comes in.
At the beginning of August, he joins two other VOPA board members appointed by Warner, and eight board members appointed by the General Assembly in a session to make some key decisions for the new agency.
They will consider how VOPA will initiate investigations, and who to hire as executive director of the new agency. But they will also discuss the ramifications, for Virginia, of the Supreme Court decision in L.C. vs. Olmstead.
<b>COOPER HAD CAMPED</b> outside the night before arguments in the case, and he has followed it as the director of ECNV. Now he hopes to see the court’s decision implemented on a wide scale in the state of Virginia. "We’ll see what we can do to remove any barriers between what the federal law allows and what state [funding] permits," he said.
Supporters of independent living have run into obstacles in the past finding funding from state sources to build or buy more homes suitable for people with physical or developmental disabilities. Cooper knows that challenge will remain, but he hopes to see it shrink somewhat under the current state administration.
"When the governor was seeking his current job, he had a number of priorities I was pleased to see," Cooper said. "One was promoting independent living, and one was making the agency overseeing state services independent."
The establishment of the VOPA was one of the successes of the last Assembly session, thanks in part to the lobbying of people like Cooper, said Almand. Now the hope is that Cooper, and the other members of the VOPA board will be able to push for more funding for independent living.
Economic shortfalls do pose a problem to state funding, though. "We have to be creative and look for economic opportunities, grants and other funding sources," Almand said. "Michael Cooper will be great at trying to do that."