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By Alec MacGillis
Sun Staff
Originally published September 14, 2003

Close to 200 protesters, most of them in wheelchairs, held a noon rally yesterday at the Inner Harbor on their two-week odyssey from Philadelphia to Washington to support disabled people who want to live at home rather than in nursing homes.

The protesters, drawn from across the country, are traveling 144 miles from Philadelphia to Capitol Hill to build support for the Medicaid Community-Based Attendant Services and Supports Act, federal legislation that would require Medicaid to pay for home attendant care so that disabled people aren't unnecessarily forced into nursing homes.

Many states provide some Medicaid funding for home care services but have been cutting the support during the fiscal crunch, lengthening the waiting lists for disabled people hoping to leave nursing homes.

Advocates for home care say it costs less per person than nursing home care, but the legislation requiring the funding of home attendants has stalled since being introduced in 1997, thanks partly to opposition from the nursing home industry and from governors who say the legislation would cost too much.

Yesterday, poncho-covered protesters gathered at the plaza at Pratt and Light streets to argue for the legislation on the principle of human freedom: It is wrong, they said, to warehouse people who, with some help, could live in their own homes.

"We sit here in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote of the 'land of the free and home of the brave,' and we demand this freedom," said Barbara Toomer, a protester in her 70s from Salt Lake City who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal-cord injury.

The trek - organized by a disabled-rights group called ADAPT, or American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today - involves dozens of wheelchairs, some of them powered manually, 10 vans, four trucks, 12 portable toilets, 50 tents and 350 gallons of water. On Friday night, the protesters camped in Patterson Park.

Terrence Turner, 46, came from Denver to take part in the trip. Turner, who lost his legs after a 1986 shooting in Detroit, said he believes strongly in keeping the disabled out of nursing homes even though he's never had to stay in one.

"It's like taking a fish out of water. Eventually, you die," said Turner, who was using a manual wheelchair.

Ben Barrett, 45, came from northern Wisconsin for the trek because he's seen how much better off fellow disabled people in his county are after being released from nursing homes into care at their own homes.

"Congress guarantees your right to live in an institution but not the right to live in your own home," said Barrett, who has been in a wheelchair since being hit by a freight train eight years ago.

"All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you."
Gandolf the Gray