Imagine being forced to live in an institution, told repeatedly that you’d have to wait for a long waiting list to clear before you could live comfortably and freely out in your own community. Sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? For Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, it was no nightmare. The two women, who lived with severe psychiatric and intellectual disabilities, were confined to institutional living in Georgia on the grounds that they couldn’t be accommodated in the community because there was no room for them.
Fortunately for them, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, and it had something to say about situations like this one. Even with a legal mandate to end disability discrimination, though, they couldn’t emancipate themselves from the institution. Until they took the matter to court, which resulted in a landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision that came to be known as Olmstead vs L.C. Their brave pursuit of the matter in court legally affirmed the right of disabled people to live in their communities, and set a clear precedent to get other disabled people out of institutions.
What was the story behind Olmstead vs L.C., and how did the legal specifics of the case actually play out? The story is a fascinating one of disability rights activists, coordination with government agencies and Department of Justice enforcement of the ADA and its related caselaw to create a freer, more just world for disabled people.
Tommy Olmstead, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Human Resources, et al. v. L. C., by Zimring, guardian ad litem and next friend, et al was filed in 1995, asserting that although the two women had been deemed suitable for community placement, and wanted to be in the community, they were being unjustly confined in an institution. They were concerned about inappropriate housing in institutional settings and treatment that wasn’t suitable to their needs. After some wrangling through an assortment of courts, the case landed in front of the High Court, which handed down a 6-3 decision in favor of the two women.
The legal question at the heart of the case was the so-called “integration mandate” in the ADA, which states that “… no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of his disability, be excluded from participation in, or be denied benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” Disability rights advocates argued that this included the right to live in their communities rather than be institutionalized, and the Supreme Court largely agreed with them.
Under the precedent set by the Supreme Court, if an evaluation determined that someone would be better served by living in a community setting, and the individual preferred to live outside an institution or didn’t oppose a move, the state would be obligated to find a community placement. This had huge implications for a community that had been historically locked behind institution walls, making it impossible to interact with the outside world, connect with other disabled people, and build lives of their own. Under Olmstead vs L.C., disabled people asserted their right to live as full members of society.
Why was Olmstead so important, and why does it continue to play such a huge role in the history of disability rights as well as disability caselaw?
The immediate result was a shift of people out of institutions and into their communities, where they lived healthier, fuller and happier lives. It also generated huge savings for the government, as the costs of institutionalization are much higher than those of community-based living. In 2009, President Barack Obama declared the Year of Community Living, signaling a joint initiative by the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to target Olmstead and ADA enforcement to make life better for disabled Americans.
In the long term, Olmstead has forced people to think differently about the lives of disabled Americans and their contributions to society. Thanks to this Supreme Court decision, more disabled people are out and about, active in their communities, engaging with the public — which reminds people that disabled people have much to contribute to society, and helps to demystify disability and make it less frightening. It’s also helped to reduce disability stigma and discrimination, creating a more just world.
Photo credit: Tom Thai.