Throwback Thursday: Olmstead v. L. C. (1999)

Elaine Wilson (left) and Lois Curtis were held in a state-run institution for years because even though they were approved for discharge to community-based services.
Elaine Wilson (left) and Lois Curtis were held in a state-run institution for years even though they were approved for discharge to community-based services.

A previous post that explored to role of police in providing mental health services mentioned briefly the monumental Supreme Court decision that upheld the rights of individuals with disabilities from unnecessary institutionalization — Olmstead v. L. C. The case was the result of the experiences of two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, and the denial of appropriate services to meet their needs (Jamieson, 2011). Both Curtis and Wilson had intellectual and developmental disabilities and were voluntarily admitted as patients into Georgia Regional Hospital, a state-run psychiatric hospital (Jamieson, 2011). After receiving treatment, both Curtis and Wilson were deemed ready for discharge and transition into a community-based services (Olmstead, 2015). However, both remained confined to the state hospital for years due to long waitlists and lack of providers that would allow for Curtis and Wilson to receive community-based services outside of the hospital (Questions and Answers, 2015).

Having lived in an institutional setting since the age of 13, Curtis made a phone call to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society seeking help (Jameison, 2011). Wilson had lived in institutions and shelters since the age of 15, subjected to treatments including shock “therapy” and psychotropic drugs (Henry, 2004).

“I want to get out!” – Lois Curtis told the Atlanta Legal Aid Society (Jameison, 2011)

“When I was in the institution, I felt like I was in a little box and there was no way out.” – Elaine Wilson testified before Judge Shoob in Olmstead v. L. C. (Henry, 2004)

In 1995, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society filed suit on behalf of Curtis and Wilson against Tommy Olmstead, the Commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Human Resources, for the Georgia Regional Hospital’s decision to keep the two women in psychiatric isolation and for the failure of the state to provide the most integrated setting appropriate for their needs, which violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Questions and Answers, 2015). After several years of litigation, the state of Georgia asked the Supreme Court to consider the civil rights of people with mental disabilities, especially around the question of: “Whether the public services portion of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compels the state to provide treatment and habilitation for mentally disabled persons in a community placement, when appropriate treatment and habilitation can also be provided to them in a State mental institution” (The Olmstead Decision, 2015).

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities against discrimination. The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities against discrimination. The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush.

On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Curtis and Wilson, finding that the unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination and was a violation of Title II of the ADA (About Olmstead, 2015). The 6-3 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg highlighted “two evident judgments”:

1.) “…institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life.”

and

2.) “…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” (Olmstead v. L. C. 98-536, 527 U.S. 581, 1999)

A key component of the case involved the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the ADA in light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s “integration mandate,” which required public entities to provide services, programs, and activities “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities” [28 C.F.R.§ 35.130(d)] (The Olmstead Decision, 2015).

The Olmstead decision has allowed thousands of individuals with disabilities to live their lives integrated into within their communities.
The Olmstead decision has allowed thousands of individuals with disabilities to live their lives integrated within their communities.

The Olmstead case has transformed the lives of many individuals living with physical and mental disabilities, including Curtis and Wilson. The ADA.gov website contains dozens of stories of individuals whose lives have been impacted by this decision through a photo journal of the Faces of Olmstead. Throughout the proceedings of the case, both Curtis and Wilson were provided supportive housing within the community (The Olmstead Decision, 2015). Elaine Wilson eventually moved into her own home with a caretaker, flourishing in the community until she died in 2004 (Henry, 2004). Lois Curtis lives in her own home and is supported by her roommates and fellow artist friends. An IndieGoGo fundraiser has been set up to raise funds in order to create a documentary to tell the story of Lois Curtis. Speaking of her art work, which has received national attention, Curtis shared,“My art been around a long time. I came along when my art came along. Drawing pretty pictures is a way to meet God in the world like it is” (Jamieson, 2011).

References:

Henry, D. (2004). Elaine Wilson, beat disability, discrimination [Obituary]. Retrieved from: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/atlanta/obituary.aspx?pid=2907375

Jamieson, S. (2011). Olmstead champion meets the president. Office of Public Engagement. WhiteHouse.gov. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/06/22/olmstead-champion-meets-president

Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone. (2015). About Olmstead. Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved from: http://www.ada.gov/olmstead/olmstead_about.htm

Olmstead v. L. C. 98-536, 527 U.S. 581. (1999). Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/98-536.ZS.html

Questions and Answers about the Legal Interpretations of the Olmstead v. L. C. Decision. (2015). National Disability Rights Network. Retrieved from: http://www.ndrn.org/issues/community-integration/311–olmstead-v-lc-decision-qa.html

The Olmstead Decision. (2015). Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Retrieved from: http://www.bazelon.org/Where-We-Stand/Community-Integration/Olmstead-Implementing-the-Integration-Mandate/The-Olmstead-Decision-.aspx

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