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23 Years of the Olmstead Decision

  • disability history,
  • Olmstead Act,
  • ADA Act

On this day 23 years ago, the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of people with disabilities to live where they want to live, including community-based housing. This ruling came from Olmstead v. L.C.  (Olmstead) which declared that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities cannot be unnecessarily segregated and must receive services in the most integrated setting possible. 


A Brief History 


Since the early 20th century, many people with disabilities and chronic mental health conditions lived in overcrowded homes and were often maltreated. By the 1960s, public policy began to shift to deinstitutionalize such places, leading residents to live in nursing homes where they still had very little freedom.


The passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 changed much of that, stating that governments shall not discriminate the provision of services, programs, or activities based upon disability. However, many states continued to discriminate against people with disabilities, only providing support services in institutional settings.  



A Wave of Change


In 1995 a lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Both women had developmental disabilities and mental illness and had been voluntarily committed to the psychiatric unit of the Georgia Regional Hospital, a state ran facility. When their medical treatment was complete, mental health professionals at the hospital determined that each woman was ready to move to a community-based program. 


Despite this decision, the women remained confined in the institution for several more years. They alleged that they had failed to receive “minimally adequate care and freedom from undue restraint,” in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as discrimination under the ADA. 


During this time Lois Curtis filed suit against Tommy Olmstead, the Secretary of Human Services in Georgia, asking to receive her services in the community rather than in an institution. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. 


On June 22, 1999, in a 6-to-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state of Georgia’s appeal. The Supreme Court found that states and localities must provide services to people with disabilities in their homes and communities, not only in institutions. They also stated that people with disabilities could choose where and how they wanted to live. Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the opinion, which acknowledged mental illness as a disability for the first time. Expanding the reach of the ADA, the opinion stated that “unjustified isolation" of people with disabilities is considered discrimination. 


The Legacy of Olmstead 


Community-based living is now achievable for people with disabilities because of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead decision. On the anniversary of its passing, the Olmstead Act is celebrated as a day of independence for people with disabilities. It is important to remember that these rights are hard-fought and in need of protection. 


Check out this video from the National Disability Rights Network for more information on community integration: