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Celebrating the Olmstead Act

  • Olmstead Act

On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. L.C. (Olmstead) that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities cannot be unnecessarily segregated and must receive services in the most integrated setting possible. The Act definitively affirmed the rights of people with disabilities to live where they want to live, including community-based housing. 


A brief history 


Prior to 1990, many people with disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and chronic mental health conditions, lived in nursing homes or state institutions. In those settings, they had very little freedom. Schedules were set and daily activities such as times for meals trips away from the facility, and visitors were regulated. 


The Americans with Disabilities Act 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 facility that was run by the state. 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 


Community-based living is now achievable for people with disabilities because of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1999 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.