Celebrating fifteen years of Olmstead

Photo of seated statue in front of US Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

It has been 15 years since the monumental Olmstead decision by the Supreme Court, which found that individuals with disabilities have a right to receive services outside of institutions, and to be fully integrated into their communities. The finding was sparked by the case of two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who ended up being confined for an extended period of time after they had been voluntarily admitted into a state-run psychiatric unit for treatment. Even after the mental health professionals said they were ready for release, they remained stuck in the institution. In a first-of-its-kind use of the ADA, the two filed a lawsuit. The result was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, which found that confining individuals “greatly diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.” To mark 15 years since the ruling, the Department of Justice, which enforces the ADA, has posted two videos detailing the magnitude of the decision and its tangible effects on the lives of people with disabilities.

It is shocking to me that it has been only 15 years since a decision that now seems like common sense. Fifteen years ago, I would have been one such individual that might have been in an institution, without control over my own life. In the first video, “The Promise of Olmstead: 15 Years Later,” Ricardo Thornton, an advocate who used to live in an institution, says he felt like he was “doing time for a crime I didn’t commit.” The mere fact that he had a disability meant that he was somehow not worthy or capable enough to be living or working independently in his community. Thus was the mindset at the time. The videos then go on to reveal more advocates’ stories and how their lives are completely different because of Olmstead. The people featured explain that they are no longer segregated but instead are active participants in their communities, contributing as citizens, and enhancing the pool of diverse perspectives where they live. It’s important for people with and without disabilities to recognize how much things have changed in our society. As clearly illustrated in the videos, the Olmstead decision has paved the way for people with disabilities to continue the fight for liberty, equality and integration into the world.