Top

A Quarter Century Later: The Impact and Future of Olmstead v. Lois Curtis

JUNE 22, 2024

ALBANY, NY: The Mental Health Empowerment Project (MHEP) proudly celebrates the 25th anniversary of the landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. Lois Curtis (1). This pivotal ruling affirmed that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (2). By mandating states to provide community-based services in the most integrated settings appropriate to individuals’ needs, this decision marked a significant victory for disability rights and inclusion.

KEY ACHIEVEMENTS:

One of the most significant impacts of the Olmstead decision was on the lives of Lois Curtis (3) and Elaine Wilson (4). After being unjustly institutionalized since their teenage years, they were finally able to return to their communities and live independently. This personal victory was emblematic of the broader change the ruling initiated.

The decision set a vital precedent, fueling nationwide litigation and leading to the closure of many institutions (5). Efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice played a crucial role in this transformation, ensuring that people with disabilities could reintegrate into their communities with essential long-term services and supports (LTSS).

Advocates have worked tirelessly to drive systemic change, resulting in a substantial shift of Medicaid funds from institutional placements to home and community-based services (HCBS) (6). This shift has been instrumental in facilitating the reintegration of people with disabilities into their communities.

ONGOING CHALLENGES:

Despite these achievements, recent Supreme Court rulings, such as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (7), have highlighted the fragility of court-protected freedoms (8) and the potential for regression (9). This landscape presents new challenges, as significant financial interests remain vested in maintaining institutional settings over community-based alternatives.

Moreover, systemic inequities continue to disproportionately impact marginalized groups. Poor, Disabled, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), undocumented, and trans individuals are overrepresented in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, nursing facilities, and other institutional settings. Additionally, homeless individuals (10) in New York City often face unjust segregation due to inadequate community-based services and housing.

CALLS TO ACTION:

MHEP urges Governor Hochul to:

  • Implement the MISCC Recommendations: Fully adopt the State’s Most Integrated Setting Coordinating Council (MISCC) recommendations (11) to ensure the integration of people with disabilities into their communities.

We also call on Congress to:

  1. Pass the Latonya Reeves Freedom Act (12) (S1193/HR2708): This vital legislation will protect and expand the civil rights of Americans with disabilities to receive LTSS in the setting of their choice. Named in honor of a Coloradan who fled Tennessee to gain the freedom to live in her own home, this act will:
    1. Establish comprehensive state planning requirements.
    2. Prevent discriminatory practices.
    3. Address disparities in community-based LTSS.
    4. Accelerate compliance with the ADA’s integration mandate.

CONCLUSION

As we celebrate this milestone, it is crucial to recognize the ongoing need for advocacy and community support. The progress made over the past 25 years is a testament to the power of collective action and persistent effort. However, our work is far from complete. We must continue to push for policies and practices that promote inclusion and equality for all individuals with disabilities.

By standing together and advocating for the rights and dignity of every person, we can create a society where everyone has the opportunity to live independently and fully participate in their communities. The legacy of the Olmstead decision depends on our commitment to advancing these principles and supporting those who continue to fight for justice.

Let us honor this anniversary by rededicating ourselves to this cause. Through our combined efforts, we can fulfill the promise of the ADA and ensure that the values of the Olmstead decision endure for generations to come. Together, we have the power to make lasting change and build a more inclusive, equitable future for all.

###

Citations:

  1. Olmstead, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Human Resources, Et Al v. L.C., by Zimring, Guardian Ad Litem and Next Friend, Et Al. https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/ll/usrep/usrep527/usrep527581/usrep527581.pdf
  2.  Public Law 101-336: 101st Congress – An Act to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability: https://www.congress.gov/101/statute/STATUTE-104/STATUTE-104-Pg327.pdf
  3. Lois Curtis and Her Legacy on Disability Rights: https://disabilityrightsflorida.org/blog/entry/lois_curtis_and_her_legacy_on_disability_rights
  4. Elaine Wilson Obituary: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/atlanta/name/elaine-wilson-obituary?id=51064723
  5. The Olmstead Decision and its Aftermath: https://publications.ici.umn.edu/impact/28-1/the-olmstead-decision-and-its-aftermath
  6. Research and Evaluation of the Money Follows the Person (MFP) Demonstration Grants: https://www.mathematica.org/projects/research-and-evaluation-of-the-money-follows-the-person-mfp-demonstration-grants
  7. Dobbs, State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health, Et Al. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Et. Al.: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf
  8. Explaining SCOTUS’s Abortion Decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization: https://www.lwv.org/blog/explaining-scotuss-abortion-decision-dobbs-v-jackson-womens-health-organization
  9. Olmstead Stands on a House of Cards: https://mhepinc.org/olmstead-and-the-house-of-cards-it-stands-upon/
  10. Statement Opposing Mayor Adams’ Involuntary Commitment Plan: https://mhepinc.org/statement-opposing-mayor-adams-involuntary-commitment-plan/
  11.  Report and Recommendations of the Olmstead Cabinet: A Comprehensive Plan for Serving New Yorkers with Disabilities in the Most Integrated Setting: https://www.ny.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Olmstead_Final_Report_2013.pdf
  12. Latonya Reeves Freedom Act: https://latonyareevesfreedomact.org/