Virginia Woman with Down Syndrome Becomes Hero to the Disabled
Hatch, who stands no taller than 5 feet and has an IQ of about 50, didn’t set out to be a champion for people with disabilities. But aftera Virginia judge declared that she has the right to choose how she lives, Hatch became an immediate symbol of strength among a population used to being assessed by its weaknesses.
“Fifty years from now, the disability community will be talking about the Jenny Hatch case,” said Denille Francis, a board member for the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads. “She really has become a symbol of hope, and to so many families, she is a hero.”
The association has asked Hatch to be its grand marshal for its annual awareness walk and 5K run in October. She has also received speaking invitations from local and out-of-state organizations.
When Hatch delivered the keynote address to the Arc of Virginia state convention Aug. 8, “Jenny deserved that stage and she commanded it,” said Hatch’s attorney, Jonathan Martinis, the legal director for the D.C.-based Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities. He called her case the most significant of his 20-year career and described the judge’s ruling as a “landmark decision.” He said he hopes other courts will recognize that people with disabilities can make their own decisions with support instead of needing a guardian to do it for them.
“We’re all told you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it,” Martinis said. “Well, people with disabilities have been told forever that they can’t do things. Jenny said, ‘I can, and I do.’”
Martinis stepped onstage after Hatch and told the audience: “If you support Jenny Hatch, if you want to honor Jenny Hatch, then fight like Jenny Hatch.”
A court battle over control
During a complicated and unusually long guardianship case, Hatch’s fight came less in the form of charging forward than in remaining steadfast.
For a year, she was forced to live in a series of group homes as Newport News Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh weighed a request from Hatch’s mother and stepfather to be appointed her guardians. The couple sought the right to decide, among other things, where Hatch lived and who visited her.
Hatch, meanwhile, made it clear what she wanted: to return to the life she had. She had lived with friends, Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert, and worked at the thrift shop they owned.
Pugh ultimately designated Morris and Talbert her temporary guardians for the next year and said he found, with appropriate support, that Hatch could “adapt and succeed independently.” He also outlined the couple’s responsibilities, which include helping her achieve the maximum benefits available to her under a Medicaid waiver that provides in-home and community-based services and supporting her in “rebuilding and strengthening her relationship” with her biological family.
Hatch’s father, Richard Hatch, said the family wanted her in a group home for her own safety, and while they wish the outcome had been different, they plan to remain in her life.
“We want what’s best for her, so we will continue to support her and keep in touch with her every day,” said Richard Hatch, who lives in North Carolina. “I hope she thrives in whatever this next chapter has to offer.”
As far as her new role as a public speaker, Richard Hatch said that his daughter has the personality for it and that he and her mother have always tried to encourage her to be active in the community. She volunteered on political campaigns and used to speak for the Special Olympics.
“If she helps people in any way whatsoever, it’s a good thing,” Richard Hatch said. “And it makes her feel good about herself, too.”
‘I love to be here’