This is How to Keep Disabled People in Their Communities

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.


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

We all have our disabilities; some are more lucky and it doesn't show...

Liliana Garcia
Liliana G3 years ago

I don't see why institutions can't have a wing for people who have good intellectual functioning and plan for them accordingly. Sadly, many people progress into a state in which they can't handle independent living but an institution will certainly gain much by providing social contacts and occupational skills that can turn into meaningful part time jobs. BTW, I visited the La Habana Psychiatric Hospital various times during the nineties and early 2000's and it is a dream come true with very few luxuries but a lot of common sense and humanness!

barb horban
barbara C Horban3 years ago

Excellennt article. Very valid points....shared

Anne Moran
Anne M3 years ago

We MUST include, every segment of our society...

The disabled, the elderly, the poor, the sick, the homeless, etc...

We are all in this world together; and we must help each other out...

Diane K.
Diane K3 years ago

Having worked with individuals with disabilities for many years, I believe 3 things: that there are persons who are not able to manage in the community safely, that we need to re-think structured settings to better provide safe community access for those who have some abilities and that we currently lack the coordinated care to meet the needs of many individuals with disabilities especially mental health.

John chapman
John chapman3 years ago


Can't get out.

Don't know what happened it just posted on it's own.

John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

How ironic.

So many people who need to be in Institutions, can't get there.

While people who could get by without being in them.

Jeannet Bertelink

Thank you

Barbara L.
Past Member 3 years ago

Disabilities vary in range, in severity. Some are highly functioning people who can live on their own and work without much accommodation. Some cannot. I know of a middle aged man with Down's Syndrome who has had a job with the same company for years where he is treated with dignity and respect.

My concern is that some people with disabilities can victimized by others who claim that they want to help them. Workers with disabilities still need to be protected from exploitation as well as discrimination.

Susie Reynolds
Susie Reynolds3 years ago

I am currently supporting a college student who is in a very similar situation. He is living in an institution and has little independence there, though he could do most everything for himself if living in, for example, a warden-monitored setting. He applied to be put on the local housing list and was initially refused because he was deemed as unsuitable for to move out of his current care home. With a bit of help and his immense determination the local authority has now put him on the housing list and he is visiting his first property to see what he thinks next week. In his case there was no mental impairment to consider but a physical condition that makes him a wheelchair user so I couldn't, from the start, see what on earth the original objection and exclusion was based upon.

It certainly seems that any sort of impairment means you will have to fight longer and harder to get anywhere and I feel sure many must simply give up along the way, which is probably what the authorities want to happen anyway.