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County native, advocate for disabled takes story to U.S. Senate

South Boston News
Norma Robertson-Dabrowski, a South Boston native now living in Pennsylvania, joined other disability advocates in testimony before the Senate education, labor and health committee. / July 24, 2014
How does one prepare for testimony before a United States Senate committee? A lifetime of experience.

For South Boston native Norma Robertson-Dabrowski, her life altered course in November 1982. She was a 16-year-old girl out and about with her high school friends and a cousin when they were caught up in a car crash on Hyco Road. In an instant, her physical world was transformed amid the wreckage, with severe injuries leaving her in quadriplegic condition.

Dabrowski’s road to recovery led to Durham, N.C. for rehabilitation, and then she moved to Philadelphia, Penn. to be closer to her mother, Kate Lurry. Dabrowski’s doctor referred her to a nursing home for institutionalized care, and she was admitted because the outside resources were unknown to her family, who continued to remain supportive.

“I was the youngest person there [in the nursing home]. I wasn’t with the family, and I didn’t want to be there,” she said.

The next seven years would be a depressing struggle for Dabrowski until September 1990 when she met a caseworker from Philadelphia-based Liberty Resources, a non-profit organization that advocates and promotes independent living for persons with disabilities.

“When I learned that I can live in the community, that is when the light bulb went off,” she said.

She and her caseworker began looking for accessible and affordable housing in January 1991. Later that year, she was able to move from the institutional nursing home environment into a place of her own. “For two years I just enjoyed being in my own apartment,” she said.

In 1996, she was offered a position with the agency that had assisted her in moving out of a nursing home. “I was letting people know they do have a choice,” she said.

After Dabrowski transitioned into the community, she met married Michael Dabrowski (and celebrated 15 years of marriage this year). She is blessed to be godmother to Mia and Khyon. She became a homeowner. She continues working full-time at Liberty Resources.

Since joining the non-profit group 18 years ago, she has continued moving up within the agency from coordinator, to supervisor, to manager, to assistant director, to director to Nursing Home Transition Administrator.

Her own personal experience — combined with her first-hand professional knowledge — brought forward a powerful testimony before the U.S. Senate Education, Health, Labor, and Pension Committee on June 24.

The hearing marked the 15th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, which allows funding to be moved from institutional care if the individual with intellectual or disabilities wants to live within his or her community. Although the court ruling did not personally assist Dabrowski in her case, she has seen its impact many times on the lives of those whom she serves.

Dabrowski explained how costs are less expensive for a person with disabilities to live in the community receiving home services or community services rather than live in a nursing home.

“One of the [Olmstead] changes is that there is more funding for transition from a nursing home,” she said.

The Olmstead decision also provides the avenue for a program that allows individuals who may be over the waiver limit to file suit and access the resources available. One success Dabrowski pointed towards was a recent client who was distraught after she found housing, but couldn’t move from the home because the client assessment placed the individual’s income $50 above the set limit.

“With the Olmstead decision and ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] lawyer, she was able to move from the waiting list [for services]. That’s what makes me go to work every day,” she said.

Dabrowski, joined by five other national advocates, appeared before the Senate committee to discuss the impact of the Olmstead decision. “I would like to say that Olmstead was a landmark decision, but we need to do more,” Dabrowski told senators.

She advocated the need to end institutional bias and practices of directing persons with disabilities towards nursing-home placement first rather than seeking alternative community resources. “Now, people are able to live with their loved ones or in independent housing,” she said. “With services and support, this allows them to live independently and have productive lives in the community.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) invited all of the panelists to submit suggestions to the committee members on how the federal government can relieve Medicaid’s preference towards institutional care, as well as what necessary steps can be changed in the law to help make such changes happen.

Sen. Tom Harken (D-Iowa), chairman of the committee, asked Dabrowski during the two-hour hearing, “You yourself were institutionalized, and I’m sure people told you ‘You can’t do this’ and ‘You can’t do that.’ How do you overcome? That’s got to grind you after a while.”

Dabrowski, responding to Harken’s question, said that knowing what she has accomplished, what she does every day, keeps her going.

“Don’t give up. It is a change in your life, especially if you were an able-bodied person,” she said. “After going through all that, I look at life to make a difference … in a blink of an eye life can change. Once it changes, it’s what you make of it,” she said.

Dabrowski will be visiting South Boston mid-August for a family reunion.

To read or listen to the U.S. Senate full committee hearing “Moving Toward Greater Community Inclusion – Olmstead at 15 (Roundtable Format),” visit and select the 06/24/14 link.


June 24, 2014

Good morning Chairman Harkin and Sen. Alexander and other members of the Committee. It’s an honor to be here talking to you this morning. I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you and share my personal testimony.

My name is Norma Robertson-Dabrowski and I am the Administrator of the Nursing Home Transition program at Liberty Resources, the Center of Independent Living in Philadelphia, Pa. In 1982, I was in a car accident which caused my quadriplegia. For a year after the accident, I lived home with my mother, who later needed to have surgery and was unable to care for me at home. When my mother asked my Doctor for assistance, I was referred to a Nursing Home. I lived in a Nursing Home for seven years. For me, the loss of mobility made me quite angry and depressed. My family remained very supportive of me, yet I still didn’t want any part of living in a nursing home. I had great difficulty adjusting to my new physical limitations as well as the institutional structure. In 1990, I was introduced to a Support Coordinator from Liberty Resources (LRI) who informed me that because I received my disability before the age of 22, under the 1987 Omnibus Reconciliation Act, I could choose to transition from the nursing home to the community. Liberty Resources (LRI) help me transition from the Nursing Home in 1991. In 1996, I was hired to work at Liberty Resources as a Support Coordinator. Over the years, I have been promoted to several different positions. Today, I am the Nursing Home Administrator who assists nursing home consumers just like myself transition to the community, where proudly I am a Wife, home-owner, and gainfully employed. I am a living example of true community integration. When I transitioned out of the nursing home in the early 1990’s there was no Olmstead decision. Liberty Resources Staff went into Nursing Homes to visit Consumers who acquired their disability before the age of 22. Under the 1987 Omnibus Reconciliation Act, Consumers were able to receive services that would assist them with transitioning to the community instead of expensive and isolating nursing homes. Some Consumers wanted to transition and others chose not to transition at that time. Staff had to go back and visit the consumers every year. Many Consumers change their minds and decided to transition to the community. Unfortunately, the 1987 Omnibus Reconciliation Act did not cover persons who may have required their disability after the age of 22. Persons who may have had a Stroke, Amputees, or Traumatic Brain Injury were not covered under the 1987 Omnibus Reconciliation Act.

With the Olmstead decision of 1999 things are much different. With the Minimum Data System(MDS) if individuals indicate in the first 30 days of Nursing Home placement that they would like to move back home or transition to the community, their names are entered on the Front Door Information System List(FDIS). A NHT Agency visits the individual and asks them if they would like to transition to the community. If the individual chooses to transition from the Nursing Home, there are Nursing Home Transition Funds (NHT) to assist with security deposit, moving expense, set-up fees, furniture etc. Unfortunately, there are no funds to help a person obtain the necessary documentation to fill out housing applications. Individual’s need 3 pieces of ID: picture I. D. (non driver’s license), birth certificate and social security card. If a person has a home prior to being admitted to a nursing home, there are no funds to hold the apartment or for rent payments.

Prior to Olmstead decision, Nursing Home consumers who did not meet the Waiver requirements such as income limit, had no other choice but to stay in a nursing home. Under the Olmstead decision individuals can file complaints with the Office of Civil rights and even class actions suits so they can transition from the nursing home. Since Olmstead decision, the number of NHT referrals has increased. Prior to Olmstead decision, NHT Agencies would have to advocate with Consumers against their families and the nursing home staff for consumer’s choice to transition. Since Olmstead Decision, Families are choosing to have their love ones live at home with the Services and supports they need to live independent and productive lives in their communities instead of placing them in nursing homes under the false pretense that they will receive 24 hour care.

Conclusion Olmstead was a landmark Supreme Court decision, but we need more. We need to end the detrimental and costly “institutional bias” and mandate the freedom of Seniors and people with disabilities to choose to receive community based services. Costly nursing home placement should be a choice of last resort rather than an automatic placement.

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