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The Olmstead Decision: 20 Years of Independence

8 people standing in park holding I Am Olmstead signs

The story of the Olmstead case begins with two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who had mental illness and developmental disabilities, and were voluntarily admitted to the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. After the conclusion of medical treatment, their mental health professionals deemed them ready to move to community-based living. However, the women remained confined in the institution for several years. They filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for release from the hospital.

On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court held in Olmstead v. L.C. that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court held that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when such services are requested and appropriate.

In its decision, the Court reached two significant conclusions: First, that "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 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."

Across the country, thousands of people living with disabilities have benefited from this landmark decision. They have been able to live their lives according to their own wishes, instead of being forced into an institution by government decree, cut off from their community, and denied access to the things countless others take for granted.

At its core, the Olmstead decision, like the ADA, is about independence. As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, let us take a moment to remember and celebrate the brave people who crawled up the US Capitol steps in order to demand passage of the ADA and the courageous women who took their case for independent living before the highest court in our land...and won.

[[ Photo Credit: Jinny Hawkins and Legal Aid of Atlanta,]]

[[Photo description: 8 individuals of various ethnicity and with varied disabilities holding signs saying I am Olmstead.]]

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