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"... In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.
The humblest is the peer of the most powerful."
– John Marshall Harlan,
dissenting opinion, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

In 1974, President Richard Nixon issued Executive Order 11776 reaffirming the national goal of returning about one-third of the 200,000 people with mental retardation in public institutions to community residential placements. The Justice Department was directed to strengthen the full legal rights for people with mental retardation. Amendments to the Social Security Act authorized residential care in Intermediate Care Facilities and established the Supplemental Security Income program.

Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act required that people with severe disabilities be given priority for vocational rehabilitation services; Section 504 prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in federally funded programs.

The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act required states to plan for community alternatives to institutionalization.

The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, in Welsh v. Likins, held that people with mental retardation have a constitutional right to treatment in the least restrictive environment.