The Olmstead Decision is one of the most important Supreme Court decisions regarding people with disabilities. This decision orders States to comply with the American with Disabilities Act to provide services for people with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.
Two women brought this case to the Supreme Court from Georgia, with assistance from Atlanta Legal Aid. Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson spent many years in and out of institutions even though it was possible and more cost effective for them to live in the community of their choice. Neither of them thrived in these places. Lois was determined to get out and with the help of Sue Jamieson from Atlanta Legal Aid, Lois was eventually able to take her case to court to win her freedom.
Lois and Sue filed the initial case and while looking for cases similar to Lois’, found Elaine Wilson. Together, these three women were able to take their case to the highest court. Elaine and Lois initially won the case in the lower courts. The ruling stated that Georgia violated the integration mandate under the ADA. The integration mandate states that services need to be provided “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” The Georgia Department of Human Resources appealed the decision of the 11th Circuit Court. The fear from the state was that all state institutions would be closed, disrupting Georgia financially. There was support for Georgia’s position; originally, 26 states signed on in favor of Georgia’s position. Advocacy and educational efforts on behalf of various disability rights groups eventually knocked this number down to seven. Lois and Elaine had the support of many states and advocacy groups and even the Solicitor General of the US who stated, “The unjustified segregation of people in institutions, when community placement is appropriate, constitutes a form of discrimination prohibited by Title II [of the ADA].”
On June 22, 1999, in a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the court and stated:
“States are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”
Thanks to this ruling, it is now law that states must provide community based supports when possible. Forced institutionalization, at least ideally, would be a thing of the past. The case is seen as being one of the most important cases regarding people with disabilities. Every state is required, by law, to have an Olmstead Committee and Olmstead planner that are in charge of enforcing this decision. Sadly, many states are falling behind on their obligations to people with disabilities. Currently Georgia’s governor has not appointed a new Olmstead Commissioner and so the efforts of de-institutionalizing people are stagnating. In order to ensure that people with disabilities can live independently in their communities, we must be politically active and advocate for our elected representatives to do the right thing.
Lois Curtis is the surviving Plaintiff in the Olmstead case and is living happily in her community where she works as an advocate for people with disabilities and creates works of art that help her thrive in the community she longed to be a part of for so many years. She is active in the Atlanta area frequently working with disABILITY LINK, the Peer Support and Wellness Center and local chapter of ADAPT and People 1st.