What are Targets
People with disabilities have a great need for legal assistance. Because DRNC does not have nearly enough funding to address every disability-related legal matter in North Carolina, we work with the disability community to identify the legal problems that are the most pressing, widespread, or that no one else is equipped to handle. We develop Advocacy Targets, or scope of work, to respond to the tremendous demand on our resources and inform the public where we are focusing our work.
Read a summary of the targets.
DRNC’s core advocacy activities are listed at the end of this document. We also invite public comment on how we carry out this ongoing work.
DRNC seeks private grants to increase our advocacy for disabled people. This work is defined in our project proposals and is not subject to public comments.
DRNC’s advocacy targets for Fiscal Year 2024 are as follows:
Keep students with disabilities in school
Students with disabilities are susceptible to being excluded from school when they exhibit challenging behaviors, even when those behaviors are related to their disabilities. Students with disabilities are excluded from school more often than students without disabilities through suspensions, expulsions, homebound placements, modified day schedules, alternative school placements, and juvenile court involvement. During the 2020-21 school year, for example, students with disabilities received 24% of short-term suspensions, 12% of long-term suspensions, 13% of expulsions, and over 23% of alternative school placements, yet comprised less than 14% of the total student population. Though some types of exclusion were less frequent than in past years for students with disabilities, such as long-term suspensions and expulsions, in 2020-21, many students were not attending school in person, or were attending in person only a few days each week, yet students with disabilities remained subject to significant discipline. Students with disabilities are legally protected from long-term discipline for behaviors related to their disabilities, yet still were excluded at high rates. All forms of school exclusion frequently result in months or years of lost instructional time for students with disabilities. In 2018-19, the average length of a long-term suspension was 73 school days – nearly 40% of the school year.
Black students with disabilities are excluded from school more often than white students with disabilities. In 2020-21, Black students with disabilities comprised 30% of all students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in NC, yet those same students received 44% of all long-term suspensions and expulsions. White students with disabilities comprised 44% of all students with IEPs in NC and received 40% of all long-term suspension and expulsions.
Sometimes students with disabilities are excluded from school before being formally identified. Studies indicate that up to 85% of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% received these services while in school. Black and Brown children are over-represented in juvenile detention facilities.
- Students with disabilities serving a lengthy homebound placement or modified school schedule who can be served in a less restrictive setting if the school provides an appropriate placement, supports and services
- Students with disabilities serving a long-term suspension, multiple short-term suspensions, repeated or long-term in-school suspensions, informal send homes, expulsion, or alternative school placement in violation of legal disciplinary safeguards, or who have been selected for discipline because of race or income in addition to disability
- BIPOC students with disabilities, or suspected disabilities, with an active juvenile court referral
- Students in NC Youth Development Centers who are not receiving appropriate special education services
Ensure disabled students are safe from abuse and harmful interventions at school
Many students with disabilities are subject to abuse at school, both because of physical and emotional abuse by school staff, and the use of seclusion, restraint, medication, or other methods. Studies show that children with disabilities are much more vulnerable to abuse than their non-disabled peers. The problem gets worse when children struggle to communicate abuse because of their disability. In some cases, students are at more risk because staff do not report incidents, or the legal system declines to investigate or take legal action.
Students with disabilities should attend school in a safe environment, free from traumatic experiences, abuse, and abusive interventions. DRNC will work to ensure this by investigating allegations of abuse and neglect in schools. We will focus on incidents that can lead to systemic change across multiple schools and school systems.
- Students with disabilities in self-contained classrooms and separate schools
- Students with significant behavior challenges and/or communication challenges
- Students who were denied access to school records regarding alleged abuse
- Students who were denied access to police or court services regarding alleged abuse
Advocate for people with disabilities to have equal access to integrated jobs that pay at least minimum wage
People with disabilities face many barriers to finding work, keeping their jobs, or getting better jobs. Some are unfairly screened out of opportunities, demoted, or even fired. Some cannot receive the accommodations they need. Others are not paid fairly and work in separate settings like sheltered workshops. Still others fear losing benefits if they return to work. We will help make sure people with disabilities have the chance to be trained for fair paying jobs, understand the impact of work on their benefits, and not experience discrimination.
- People with disabilities facing employment discrimination or other barriers to employment, |including lack of reasonable accommodations or transition services
- People with disabilities who lack appropriate training resources to find, maintain, or advance in employment
- People with disabilities who experience workplace discrimination
- People with disabilities who lack adequate information about how work may impact their benefits
Enforce the right of people with disabilities to have equal access to their communities
Equal access is a bedrock principle of civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. People are regularly denied the full and equal enjoyment of the services offered by businesses, local municipalities, and the State because of their disabilities. Disability Rights North Carolina will work to eliminate public access inequalities by upholding the rights of people with disabilities to live and participate in their communities as equals.
There are many ways to deny persons with disabilities equal access to a public place, program, or service. While not an exhaustive list, the following are some specific examples of issues DRNC has addressed within this target:
- Healthcare and rehabilitation providers that refuse to treat patients due to their substance use disorders and/or use of medications.
- Summer camps or school extracurricular activities that refuse to modify rules to accommodate campers or students with special medical conditions
- Businesses that refuse to allow patrons to use service animals
- Courtrooms that refuse to provide sign language interpreters or braille materials
- Public streets that are not wheelchair accessible or do not provide audio descriptions for crosswalks
- Colleges and schools that refuse to permit classroom or testing accommodations
- Organizers of large, public events that fail to allow aides and companions
This target population is vast. We are only able to provide representation to a small percentage of people who contact us with legal issues that fall under this target. DRNC therefore prioritizes access issues that perpetuate inequalities for the broader disability community.
Reduce North Carolina’s Over-Reliance on Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities (PRTFs)
On any given day, 700 North Carolina children are in a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF). Many of these children are in crisis because they could not get the behavioral health services they needed in their homes and in their communities. Some of the reasons for this lack of available community-based behavioral health services include: (1) there are not enough providers in the community (2) providers do not have the necessary tools to serve kids with more than one type of disability (3) the child cannot get services for more than one type of disability (4) North Carolina does not prioritize community-based treatment.
Instead, North Carolina spends hundreds of dollars per child, per day, on PRTF placement, often further traumatizing already vulnerable kids. These children are removed from their families and their communities. A disproportionate number of these children are people of color, or in the child welfare (foster care) system or living in poverty. They may be sent to PRTFs across the state or on the other side of the country. We know through DRNC’s monitoring activities that PRTFs can be physically dangerous and emotionally traumatic for children. The kids receive little or no actual treatment there. And studies show that children have better outcomes, at a lower cost, when receiving services in the community. Yet North Carolina does not prioritize less costly, more effective community-based treatment. DRNC will work to reduce reliance on these restrictive institutions and to shift resources back into the community for our youth.
- Children and youth placed in PRTFs or at risk for placement in PRTFs, particularly:
- Children and youth in DSS custody
- Children and youth of color
- Children and youth dually diagnosed with both mental health and intellectual/developmental disabilities or “complex needs”
- Children and youth who have been in multiple PRTFs
- Children and youth who are ready for discharge, but remain in a PRTF because of a lack of community services
- Children and youth placed in PRTFs because there are no community-based services available
Reduce unnecessary institutionalization of individuals with disabilities and improve home and community-based healthcare services and supports
The current health and human services system in NC is biased towards institutionalization over home- and community-based services. Often, people with disabilities who could successfully live in the community with sufficient services and supports are stuck in institutional settings. Others currently living in the community are put at risk of unnecessary institutionalization and segregation due to cost-cutting measures and a flawed implementation of the service delivery system. The pandemic that began in 2020 further highlighted inadequacies in the healthcare system, especially the provider network, for individuals with mental health needs. The number of involuntary commitments (IVCs) continued to increase throughout North Carolina as individuals desperate for services found themselves IVC’ed as a last-ditch effort to receive needed services lacking in the community. People should not have to be hospitalized or institutionalized to receive medically necessary services – a practice that is expensive and creates additional trauma. This current system violates the rights of individuals with disabilities to receive services in the least restrictive environment under the Integration Mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead decision. The State also fails to deliver medically necessary services mandated under the Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic, and Treatment (EPSDT) provisions of the Medicaid Act (Title XIX of the Social Security Act) that would allow children and adolescents to remain in the least restrictive community setting.
This Target will take a holistic approach to address these issues to reduce institutionalization, promote community integration, and promote access to medically necessary services so that adults and children with disabilities live where they want and have the services needed to enjoy full inclusion in the community.
- People with disabilities in institutions who have been denied transition to the community because of a lack of available home and community-based services
- People with disabilities in the community facing institutionalization or re–institutionalization due to a denial of services or lack of available home and community-based services
- Children and youth dually diagnosed with both mental health and intellectual/developmental disabilities facing increased risk of institutionalization because of a lack of coordinated service and/or inadequate home and community-based services
Protect the housing rights of people with disabilities under both federal and state law
For the past few years, disability discrimination has been the number one source of housing discrimination complaints in North Carolina. Predictably, DRNC has noticed a steady increase in requests for help from individuals experiencing housing discrimination. Callers have been denied reasonable accommodations or modifications to make sure their home is accessible for their needs, thereby denying them access to their homes equal to individuals without disabilities. Others have been subjected to harassment or predatory housing practices due to their disability and/or threatened with eviction due to their disability-related needs or behaviors.
Many individuals, due to their disabilities, do not understand the eviction process (called summary ejectment) in North Carolina. They are often unaware of their rights and available defenses to evictions based upon their disabilities and are unable to adequately represent themselves in proceedings. Finding housing post eviction can be especially tough on individuals with disabilities due to stigmas and discrimination that make finding safe, accessible, and affordable housing a challenge. It is an even greater challenge when individuals with disabilities are also people of color, LGBTQ+, and/or indigent.
To make matters worse, North Carolina is on the cusp of a housing crisis. There is currently a 207,000-unit shortage for extremely-low-income families. This shortage disproportionately affects persons with disabilities who make up 20% of individuals receiving federal rental assistance in North Carolina. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the importance of a safe and affordable home, North Carolina’s eviction rate is more than twice the national average. Eight cities in North Carolina are among the top 100 cities in the country with the highest eviction rates. Five of those eight cities rank in the top 25 US cities with the highest eviction rate.
DRNC is committed to combating housing discrimination and predatory practices, including discriminatory evictions, to ensure people with disabilities and their households may live independently in accessible homes in the communities of their choice. This goal will be achieved through education and training, individual representation, and systemic advocacy.
- People with disabilities who have been denied access to housing based on their disabilities
- People with disabilities whose housing providers have denied them reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications
- Persons with disabilities and their households at risk of losing their housing due to discrimination related to their disability or a failure to accommodate their disability-related needs
Advocate for a safe, equitable and just criminal legal system for people with disabilities
People with disabilities are not only overrepresented in North Carolina’s prisons and jails, they are also overrepresented in violent interactions with law enforcement and face challenges accessing equal treatment throughout the criminal legal system. DRNC continues to identify gaps and advocate for improvement in the treatment of people with disabilities in prisons and jails as well as work to make the ADA’s right to access programs and services a reality in these institutions. We recently expanded this target and continue to be a leading advocate for people with disabilities in prisons and jails. This expanded target encompasses investigating the experience of people with disabilities at steps along the criminal process and identifying reforms needed to ensure the system is safe and fair for people with disabilities.
In the prison context, the Department of Adult Correction continues to house people with mental health disabilities in solitary confinement without needed out of cell treatment. DAC fails to identify and accommodate thousands of people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, leaving them at risk of abuse as well as idled in prison and ill prepared for successful reentry. The prison-ADA system fails to identify and accommodate people with disabilities. DRNC’s goal is to remedy the ADA system in NC prisons so that people with disabilities are no longer discriminated against and can access programs and services while in prison and as part of their preparation for successful reentry upon release.
Jails are neither designed nor funded to provide mental health treatment, yet with the erosion of public mental health services they have increasingly become de facto mental health facilities. The disparities for immigrant individuals with mental health disabilities are even worse. Suicides continue to occur at an alarming rate in NC jails. Advocacy is needed to ensure jail administrators appropriately respond to a person’s mental health needs. Sadly, we have learned that jail administrators are also failing to protect the increasing numbers of arrestees in crisis due to substance use. There are few organizations monitoring conditions in our NC jails, and DRNC can have a meaningful impact on the quality of care for people with disabilities.
DRNC has developed innovative, cross-team projects, collaborations, and policy advocacy to focus attention on the identification and treatment of people with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in our criminal system, assisting recently released people in obtaining state identification when they re-join their communities, the right to treatment for opioid use disorder in jails and prison and the abolition of long-term solitary confinement in NC prisons. We continue to monitor all criminal system related issues to ensure that we efficiently and effectively target our advocacy in the areas where we can be most effective in reforming the most damaging aspects of our criminal system when encountered by people with disabilities.
- People with disabilities confined in NC jails
- People with mental health disabilities in prison who are not identified and/or are not receiving appropriate treatment
- Incarcerated people with disabilities who are not receiving accommodations and who are denied equal access to prison programs and services
- Disabled people who come in contact with law enforcement and the criminal court system
- People with disabilities who are re-joining their communities after a period of incarceration
Enforce the right of disabled people to control their own lives
People with disabilities routinely have the right to make decisions about their lives forcibly taken away from them through guardianship and commitment proceedings. Guardianship permits an individual, a corporation, or the government to stand in the shoes of a person with a disability and make decisions on their behalf. This relationship results in the loss of some or all decision-making authority belonging to a disabled person under the notion that many adults with disabilities cannot engage in decisions about their lives and need a protector. North Carolina does not appoint attorneys to individually represent and advocate for people with disabilities during these proceedings, which has contributed to the misuse and overreliance of guardianships in our state. People of color, LGBTQ+, and indigent face additional challenges navigating guardianship proceedings.
Involuntary commitment is used to forcibly hold persons against their will when they have a mental health condition and are found to be a danger to themselves or others. North Carolina’s ongoing failure to provide affordable, quality community mental health services has perpetuated the state’s overuse of involuntary commitments, especially since they do not consider less restrictive alternatives to confinement as part of these proceedings. Forced commitments are highly traumatic, stigmatizing, and disruptive to the daily lives of people with disabilities. These proceedings are rooted in fears that people with mental health needs are different and dangerous to society.
People with disabilities have the same right to self-determination as everyone else. They are entitled to be informed, exert control in their lives, receive respectful support from those they choose to turn to for help, make decisions free from coercion, to act on their own behalf, and to direct their healthcare decisions. Self-determination is one of our most fundamental rights.
- People with disabilities who would like to restore their competency or prevent guardianship
- People with disabilities who are under guardianship but want to retain some of their decision-making rights, such as the right to spend time with or marry who they want
- People with disabilities who have been denied help from their guardians to transition from institutions to the community with supports
- People with disabilities who were involuntarily committed without consideration of less restrictive mental health services
DRNC’s outreach work engages and builds relationships with disabled people, communities, organizations, and other key stakeholders to increase awareness of DRNC’s services, provide education on disability rights, and connect them to opportunities, resources, and supports they need to overcome barriers to living independently in communities of their choice. We seek to build, cultivate, empower, and maintain relationships with disability communities in all 100 NC counties, with a focus on rural areas, communities of color, older adults, and LBGQT+ people.
DRNC’s outreach has also focused on people with disabilities who have been affected by disasters or pandemics. Through our outreach work, DRNC’s intentionally collects input from people with disabilities across NC to help inform our advocacy targets.
Currently, due to support from USAging, DRNC’s outreach priority is vaccine access. Project ACCESS seeks to provide equitable vaccine access to disabled people across NC, especially people with age-related disabilities and people who live in rural or historically marginalized communities.
Voters with disabilities still vote at disproportionately lower rates than non-disabled people. Reasons for this disparity include significant structural and procedural barriers, and lack of focus on the needs of disabled voters by policy-makers, boards of elections, political parties, funders, voter engagement advocates and volunteers, and others. DRNC maximizes our voting rights impact by ensuring that coalition partners who work on voter engagement and mobilization make their efforts and information accessible, and explicitly consider the needs of voters with disabilities in their planning. We emphasize the benefits of early voting, identify and address barriers at polling sites, and dismantle access barriers to voting, including absentee voting.
Information, Referral and Self-Advocacy Support
Another important part of the work we do at DRNC is to support self-advocacy among people with disabilities. We continually offer information and referral services, conduct outreach and education, and provide self-advocacy materials to help people with disabilities and other advocates learn about and enforce disability rights.
Public Policy Advocacy
DRNC engages in public policy advocacy with funds we raise from individual donors to support our scope of work. In accord with our important role as the state’s protection and advocacy organization, this work keeps the perspective of people with disabilities at the forefront of policies in administrative agencies, state rules, and state laws.
Representative Payee Reviews
DRNC is charged with ensuring that disabled people with a rep payee that receives and manages their Social Security benefits are not abused, neglected, or exploited. Our rep payee reviews include:
- An interview with the individual or organizational representative payee
- A review of the representative payee’s financial records for the requested beneficiary or sample of beneficiaries served
- A home visit and interview for each beneficiary included in the review
- An interview with legal guardians and third parties when applicable
Read a summary of the targets.