JUNE 22, 2023

On the 24th anniversary of the historic United States Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C. (Lois Curtis), we take time to remember the case’s lead plaintiff, Lois Curtis. Lois Curtis died on November 3, 2022. Lois’ legacy and impact will live on in the disability justice movement as we continue to fight for community integration, de-institutionalization and self-determination for all people with disabilities. Rest in Power, Lois.

The Mental Health Empowerment Project (MHEP) commemorates the twenty-fourth anniversary of the landmark 1999 United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision Olmstead v. LC. The decision involved two women – Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson – who had been held in a Georgia State Psychiatric hospital well beyond their release dates. Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg held that the failure to provide community placement for Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson constituted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The Court also held that states are required to provide community-based services to people with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate for that individual’s needs. 

With the Court’s ideological shift to the right, rights granted solely through court decisions are now firmly in the Court’s crosshairs. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – last June’s seismic SCOTUS decision that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion – the Court determined that the only rights protected by the Constitution are the rights that would have been understood by the individuals who wrote the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. When the 14th Amendment was ratified (in 1868), eugenics was gaining support, Ugly Laws were in full force – with those deemed unsightly (i.e. poor, Disabled people) – banished to Asylums. 

In their Dobbs dissent, Justices Breyer, Sotomayer and Kagan wrote: “no one should be confident that this majority is done with its work. The right Roe and Casey recognized does not stand alone. To the contrary, the Court has linked it for decades to other settled freedoms involving bodily integrity, familial relationships, and procreation.” Look no further than Justice Thomas’ Olmstead dissent in 1999, where he questioned the basis for plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination. If you are thinking, “there is no way anyone would want to roll back these rights,” think again. Billions of dollars are spent each year warehousing people in institutions.

We can live up to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Olmstead mandate by confronting the systemic inequities that prohibit Poor, Disabled, Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), older adults, undocumented people and trans folks from community living. Today, though, we celebrate community living and all of those who have been liberated from institutional settings. We must continue call out the harmful and exclusionary barriers that perpetuate institutional bias and deny individuals the right to live in the community. 

MHEP calls on Governor Hochul to implement the recommendations of the State’s Most Integrated Setting Coordinating Council (MISCC). Additionally, MHEP calls on Congress to codify the right for Americans with disabilities to live in freedom.