June 22 marks the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C.,  a landmark case that opened the door for millions of people with disabilities to live in the community.

What was the Olmstead case about?

The Olmstead case involved two women from Georgia, Lois Curtis (the L.C. in the case name) and Elaine Wilson, who both had diagnoses of intellectual disability and mental health conditions. Lois and Elaine were forced into the state’s mental health hospitals many times, despite wanting to remain at home with the help of community-based services. Doctors agreed that Lois and Elaine were capable of living in the community, with appropriate support. However, the state took years to set up their services.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lois and later added Elaine to the case. Tommy Olmstead, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, was the defendant.  The case was grounded in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and whether people with disabilities could decide where they could receive services and supports.

The Supreme Court issued a requirement that states had to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to ensure that persons with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

What was The Arc’s role?

A woman in a floral bathing suit lays in a beach chair by the pool, smiling

Lois Curtis

Following the enactment of the ADA in 1990, the federal courts heard cases about the meaning and requirements of the new law. As these cases began to come before the Supreme Court, organizations like The Arc, which played key roles in the passage of the ADA, worked together to coordinate and file amicus curiae (‘friend of the court’) briefs.  The Arc participated in a brief in the Olmstead case, supporting Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. The brief explained the importance of the assumption that people with disabilities have the right to live in the community rather than only living in segregated settings.

In addition, many state chapters of The Arc worked with their state’s Attorney General to ensure that they did not join an amicus brief in support of Georgia’s/Olmstead’s position in the case. The significant lack of support for the Georgia brief made an impact since, at that time, states would normally have supported another state’s position. This kind of defensive work may not often make the headlines, but these critical, behind-the-scenes efforts from chapters of The Arc had a huge impact on the case.

What was the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead?

This was a landmark decision for the rights of people with disabilities to be a part of their communities, on their terms.

The Supreme Court held that the ADA prohibits unjustified segregation of people with disabilities and that states must provide community-based services to people with disabilities when: such services are appropriate; the individuals do not oppose such services; and community-based services can be reasonably accommodated, considering governmental resources and the needs of others receiving disability services.

 For other important findings in the decision, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has a statement and technical assistance guide on the ADA’s Integration Mandate and the Olmstead decision.

What is the impact of the decision?

The Olmstead decision paved the way for generations of people with disabilities to live full lives in the community. Here are several impacts to highlight:

  • Many states developed an Olmstead State Plan to show that they had a path forward that led to more support in the community for people with disabilities and a plan for complying with the decision.
  • An approved state Medicaid plan does not absolve the state of failure to meet its obligations under Olmstead and the ADA or indicate that the state has devoted sufficient resources to achieve compliance.
  • Individuals can file Olmstead and ADA claims to enforce their right to live in the community.
  • People living in the community who are “at risk” of institutionalization are covered by the ADA and Olmstead
  • The integration mandate extends not only to residential settings but other contexts impacting the lives of people with disabilities, including employment, education, and more.

Why does the Olmstead case still matter today?

The Olmstead decision is not just a historical event for celebration. It is a living roadmap to help ensure that people with disabilities, including intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) receive the support they need and opportunities to live, work, and learn in the setting of their choosing.

Our nation has not yet achieved full implementation of the national goals set forth in the ADA: equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. The Arc continues to work to improve outcomes and advocate for the resources needed to build community infrastructure and a workforce to support people with IDD. The Olmstead decision is a vital tool to create a better life for people with IDD and other disabilities.

The post Celebrating 25 Years of the Olmstead Decision appeared first on The Arc.

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