Say Their Names

Elaine Wilson and Lois Curtis

Say their names: Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. History has kept these women shrouded in obscurity, but for people with disabilities they are heroes and freedom fighters.

These two brave women, were the plaintiffs in a legal case against the state of Georgia. The state fought to keep Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson institutionalized, despite the recommendation of the care team at the Georgia Regional Hospital for both women to be transferred to an independent living situation. When the state refused to set them free, the women took the state to court—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Olmstead v. L.C. (527 U.S. 581) is a U.S. Supreme Court decision announced on this day in 1999. It is a milestone in the history of the disability rights movement and declares it unlawful for the state to segregate people with disabilities into institutions against their will.

The decision established three basic legal precedents establishing the rights 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.

After winning their case, both women were able to move into their own apartments with the needed supports—a movement that ARISE and independent living centers continue to facilitate to this day. While Elaine Wilson passed away in 2005, Lois Curtis is still living independently, has become a well-known artist and during a meeting in the Oval Office presented President Barack Obama with a portrait she drew of him:

President Barack Obama looks at a painting by Lois Curtis during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 20, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Our struggles are not over. Far too many people with disabilities live in institutions. Our struggle now is to find the supports and services—housing, employment, home care aides, good public transit—that guarantees the phrase “least segregated setting possible” means independent living in the community.

It is a shame that this landmark Supreme Court case is routinely referred to as “the Olmstead decision.” Tommy Olmstead was the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, fighting to keep Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson institutionalized. When the decision was made in 1999, it was standard procedure to use initials for people with disabilities rather than their full names. It was thought that being publicly identified as disabled was too stigmatizing.

So it is incumbent upon us, the people still pushing forward in the disability rights movement to say their names: Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Their struggle is our struggle. They are our heroes.

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