Olmstead turns 16

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a birthday crown
The Notorious RBG

The Supreme Court’s most celebrated decision upholding the rights of people with disabilities is now 16 years old, and its impact is being felt more strongly than ever.

Historically, people with disabilities have been locked up in institutions, where they were abused and deprived of the opportunities to live independent lives. In the second half of the 20th century, many US states began moving away from this model, leading to the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, outlawing the segregation of people with disabilities.

For most of the first decade of the ADA’s existence, the strength of its integration mandate remained unclear. Few states took bold moves to provide the necessary services for people with disabilities to live in their communities.

Then came Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who had lived on and off again for years in mental health hospitals. Despite the hospital professionals saying they were ready for community living, they waited for years for the state of Georgia to provide appropriate community-based services. So, they filed a federal lawsuit, with the assistance of attorneys from Legal Aid.

The Supreme Court, in the case Olmstead v. L.C., delivered a monumental decision in their favor. Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made unequivocally clear that the ADA bars Georgia from unnecessarily segregating people with disabilities, as well as requires it to provides necessary integration services.

In doing so, the Court recognized the devastating historical impact of institutions, and the barriers they impose on people with disabilities.

“First, institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. “Second, confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.”

In the 16 years since the decision, most states have created their own Olmstead plans. With the Olmstead decision at their disposal, disability advocates have negotiated comprehensive settlements to accelerate deinstitutionalization efforts in states ranging from New York, to North Carolina to Illinois. Enforcing Olmstead has become a primary focus at the Department of Justice. More than anytime in history, people with disabilities have the opportunity to live their own lives, in their own communities, among their peers.

To celebrate this pivotal civil rights decision, Rooted in Rights created this happy anniversary video.

More information about Olmstead and how it is being implemented across the US is available on the OlmsteadRights.org website.