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.
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.
The complete video interview with David Ferleger is available at Disability Litigation
Other examples include the following:
- Steve Gold speaks about the Helen L. Case.
- Chris Lyons talks about the Dignity of Risk concept.
- Derrick Dufresne discusses what people need versus what people get and a call for action:
Queen for a Day
The Need for Action
- ADAPT, a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom has also taken on this struggle.
- See also Lucy Gwin's photo-essay on the essence of "home".
- Systems change struggles to person-centered thinking supporting self-determination.
- The shift from institutions to delivering services and supports in the community.
- Tom Nerney on developing individual budgets.
- Dr. Bill Bronson and friends reflect on their struggles to close Willowbrook.
There are also many successes. Stories of how people with developmental disabilities have triumphed:
- Minnesota's Housing Access Services Program
- Michigan's Community Living Services and the stories of six people in the Possibilities videos series.
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.