Free Our People–The 20th Anniversary of the Olmstead Decision

Freedom isn’t free. We hear this phrase a lot and it certainly rings true for people with disabilities, since our freedom has come quite recently—and is not quite complete.

This week we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Olmstead v L.C., (527 U.S. 581), a U.S. Supreme Court decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The Olmstead decision declares it unlawful for the state to segregate people with disabilities into institutions against their will.

The decision went on to establish several important legal precedents that have helped establish the freedom of people with disabilities:

  • Mental illness is a disability.
  • Unjust institutionalization is a form of discrimination that is unlawful under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • People with disabilities are entitled to live in the least segregated setting possible.

Olmstead, like all Supreme Court cases, arose out of a real life dispute. The L.C. in this decision is a woman named Lois Curtis. Olmstead was Tommy Olmstead, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources. At the age of 11, Lois was placed in the Georgia Regional Hospital after being diagnosed with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Despite having been recommended for community living by her care team at the hospital, Lois was not allowed to move out of the mental institution for many years. Her legal case took four years, but at the age of 29 Lois was finally able to move into her own apartment in the community. Lois has flourished in her new life, pursuing her interest in painting. She even met President Barack Obama in the White House and presented him with a portrait she had drawn:

Lois Curtis meets with President Obama in the White House.

In an interview, Lois Curtis was asked what she hoped for others with disabilities, who are now able to move out of institutions as a result of Olmstead:

I hope they live long lives and have their own place. I hope they make money. I hope they learn every day. I hope they meet new people, celebrate their birthdays, write letters, clean up, go to friends’ houses and drink coffee. I hope they have a good breakfast every day, call people on the phone, feel safe.

While the Olmstead decision found that people with disabilities have the right to live in the most integrated setting possible, the case did not reach a decision on whether there is a constitutional right to receive long-term care services out in the community. That is the final piece to the puzzle—the right to receive the kind of services that will enable a person with disabilities to live an independent life outside of an institutional setting.

This is why the disability community is working so hard to convince Congress to pass the Disability Integration Act (S. 117/ H.R. 555). This Act, known as D.I.A., will forbid governments, private agencies and insurance companies from restricting the provision of long term care services to institutions. Under D.I.A., if people with disabilities choose, these services must be provided in their homes.

As we approach June 22nd and the twentieth anniversary of the Olmstead decision, we remember all those people with disabilities that have fought long and hard so that they and their disabled brothers and sisters could live independent lives. We also honor the sacrifices of those that were unable to escape the prison of harsh segregated institutions.

Yes, our freedom is not free.

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