RIVERHEAD, N.Y. - Who could blame Paul and Hava Forziano from celebrating Independence Day a few days early?
The mentally disabled newlyweds, who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against group homes that refused to allow them to live together as husband and wife, held a joyous moving-in party Monday at their new apartment after another agency sympathetic to their plight stepped forward to offer them space in one of its facilities.
"We can be together all the time now," Paul Forziano said. Added his wife, "Happy, not sad."
The newlywed couple beamed with joy and frequently hugged and kissed as they welcomed their parents, attorneys and reporters into their freshly painted one-bedroom apartment. The apartment is one of several in a large group home, already occupied by eight men; the newlyweds will live alone on the second floor, although the group home is staffed day and night should they need any help.
"It's more independent," said Norman Samuels, the father of the bride who walked her down the aisle at a ceremony last April at a Long Island catering hall. "Here it is July 4th is coming up. It's not quite that type of independence, but it is more independent."
Despite the happy developments, the lawsuit filed earlier this year will go on. The couple and their parents want a judge to order that all group homes in New York make facilities available for mentally disabled married couples.
Legal experts are watching the case closely as a test of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which says, in part, that "a public entity shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures ... to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability." The group homes are licensed as nonprofits by the state and receive Medicaid funding on behalf of their clients.
"You don't know what's going to happen in the future," said attorney Martin Coleman. "People like Paul and Hava have to have the ability to move around if they want to. There's only a limited number of providers. We need to be sure they're not closed out of places."
Paul's mother, Roseann Forziano, said her son and his new wife likely would still be looking for a new place had it not been for the legal action.
"I don't think it would have happened without a lawsuit." she said. "All of a sudden once you file a lawsuit there's a whole lot of co-operation. I don't want that to have to be the norm."
The facility where the former Hava Samuels lived has declined to comment because of the pending litigation. The group home operators where Paul Forziano lived said they didn't have facilities available for a married couple.
Also named in the lawsuit is the state Office of Persons With Developmental Disabilities, which the couple claims sided with the agencies in refusing to accommodate their wishes and has not done enough to find a solution. The office has declined to comment.
Forziano, 30, is classified in the mild to moderate range of intellectual functioning, with limited reading and writing skills. His wife, 36, is in the moderate range, with significant expressive language disability.
Gus Lagoumis, director of programming at East End Disability Associates — operators of the facility the newlyweds now call home — said his agency has no objections to mentally disabled people living as married couples.
"Gone are the days where parents are told a kid has a disability, institutionalize them and forget they ever existed," he said. "Now we have people growing up in the community and they want to do things just like everybody else does and getting married and possibly getting divorced is one of the things that goes on in a community."