Understanding Disability Rights in California: A Guide for Individuals and Families

A woman with down syndrome sitting on a bench

If you or a loved one live with a neurodevelopmental or intellectual disability, you have rights protected by the State of California. 

Understanding them can help you learn which services are available to you. It can also empower you to act if you ever feel your rights are being infringed upon. 

Let’s take a closer look at what you need to know.


Overview of Disability Right Laws & Regulations

You or members of your family have the right to:

  • Make decisions about how you live your life. This includes choices about work, school, relationships, and services you want or need.
  • Dignity and respect.
  • Humane care. This includes living in an accepting community, having enough food to eat, and feeling safe where you live.
  • Privacy. You don’t have to share your thoughts, feelings, or experiences with anyone unless you want to. 
  • Participate in public education that’s right for you.
  • Safety, social interaction, and physical exercise.
  • Receive services in the least restrictive environment possible.

Meanwhile, the State of California is responsible for:

  • Protecting these rights by funding necessary resources and monitoring services.
  • Prosecuting those who violate these rights.
  • Actively working to learn how to better support those with developmental disabilities.

Key Laws for Those with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

While many legislative codes discuss protections for people with disabilities, some specific examples pertain specifically to those with intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Being familiar with these laws and their protections can help you know how and when to take action if any are violated.

The Lanterman Act 

Division 4.5 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, better known as The Lanterman Act, outlines the government’s responsibilities regarding protecting the rights of those with intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities. 

Key Points:

  • The State has a responsibility to help people with intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities live as close to a “normal” life as possible. 
  • A diverse range of services and support must be available to meet the needs of every person with a developmental disability. 
  • These services are designed to support integration into communities, empower those with disabilities, and help them become more independent in a way that fits their goals.
  • The State recognizes the importance of respecting family relationships and the contributions families make to support loved ones with developmental disabilities.
  • People with developmental disabilities are entitled to care and habilitation in the least restrictive environment possible.
  • Those with developmental disabilities have the right to make their own choices for their lives, including where they live, go to school, work, etc.
  • Regional support centers and government resources must be available in different forms (multiple languages, accessible formats, etc.) for the populations they serve.

California Fair Employment and Housing Act

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (California Government Code Section 12900-12976) aims to protect the rights of all people, regardless of their background, to seek housing and employment. 

It defines a “mental disability,” which grants a person access to rights outlined in this Act and other legislation, is defined as:

“Having any mental or psychological disorder or condition… emotional or mental illness, or specific learning disabilities, that limits a major life activity.”

A “major life activity” is broadly defined to include social, mental, and physical activities. Essentially, any disorder or condition that makes it challenging to navigate some part of life falls under this umbrella and is protected by these rights.

Key Points:

  • The ability to seek and obtain employment without discrimination is a civil right.
  • Finding and holding housing without discrimination is also a civil right.
  • No person’s wishes or opportunities related to work and housing can be limited by their disability or service needs.

Other Disability Rights and Programs to Consider

An example of a service created by the government to support people with disabilities is the California Self-Determination Program, hosted by the Department of Developmental Services.

This program puts more power in the hands of people with developmental disabilities and their families. It aims to help individuals and families better select service providers to meet their needs and adopt a person-centered plan for care. 

After all, there’s no better way to understand a person's needs than to give them space to tell you. Likewise, no one is more familiar with how a disability impacts life than the person it affects and their family. 

Legal protections and government services like these are in place to ensure you and your family are treated with the respect you deserve. 

To learn more about any of these texts or how to utilize them, you may contact the California Department of Developmental Services for help.

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