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Moments in Disability History 18

The Olmstead Decision

The Olmstead decision was the most important Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) victory for people with disabilities.

On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Olmstead v L.C. & E.W., that states violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when they "unnecessarily" institutionalize people with mental disabilities.

Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson had been confined to a Georgia institution even though state workers said they could be served well in the community. Tommy Olmstead was the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services.

In its 6-3 decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that "states are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State's treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities."

President Clinton followed the Olmstead decision with a directive to all state Medicaid programs to draw up plans to comply with the Olmstead ruling and the "integration mandate" of the ADA.

Elaine Wilson ans Lois Curtis were kept in a hospital against doctor's advice
Photo courtesy Jeffrey Macmillan for US News & World Report

The evolution of disability rights litigation that led up to the ADA, and the subsequent Olmstead decision, is told in these the clips from a video interview with David Ferleger, J.D. He has argued five cases before the United States Supreme Court; assisted the courts; represented individuals and government agencies; served as law school; and written, lectured and consulted nationally.

Ferleger first reflects on how disability rights have developed over time with social workers such as Dorthea Dix, movements spawned by the civil rights movement, and community organizing by parents and self-advocates.

Ferleger traces institution litigation in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that questioned both the purpose of institutions and the confinement of people in institutions, to the ADA itself as well as the use of the ADA language in Olmstead.

Dr. Ferleger discusses the the right to treatment and the Constitutional right to community services:

The Right to Treatment

The Constitutional Right to Community Service

David Ferleger
David Ferleger

The complete video interview with David Ferleger is available at Disability Litigation

Background, details and stories about the ongoing challenges of implementating of Olmstead, an ongoing struggle over rights and resources.

Other examples include the following:

There are also many successes. Stories of how people with developmental disabilities have triumphed:

On the 12th Anniversary of the Olmstead decision, June 22, 2011, President Barack Obama reaffirmed the thrust of this landmark ruling and recommitted his administration to end all forms of discrimination.

On the 15th Anniversary of the Olmstead decision, June 22, 2014, we are reminded again about the impact of this decision on the lives of individuals with disabilities. These two videos capture more of the many stories that have been collected and continue to be shared. The videos begin with a dedication by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and conclude with a statement by Associate Attorney General Tony West, highlighting the enforcement actions that the Civil Rights Division is taking to make The Promise of Olmstead a reality.

Video: The Promise of Olmstead: 15 Years Later

Voices from the Olmstead Decision


Sources:

The Evolution of Disability Rights Litigation. The Arc of Disability Rights Litigation

Parallels In Time 2: 1950-2005: A Place To Call Home: The Development Of Supports For Having A Home In The Community: The 2000s: Olmstead And The Struggle Over Rights And Resources

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This project was supported, in part by grant number 2001MNSCDD-03, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.