21st Anniversary of Olmstead, and What Lies Ahead


June 23, 2020 | by Amber Smock

21 years after Olmstead, what lies ahead?

Dear Access Living friends and allies,

Yesterday, June 22, was the 21st anniversary of the Olmstead U.S. Supreme Court case. Given the current context of the global Covid-19 pandemic and mass actions for racial justice, Olmstead’s relevance as a significant historic development is a call to deeper reflection and action for our collective humanity.

On June 22, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson in the Olmstead case. Lois, a Black woman, and Elaine, a white woman, had been held in Georgia institutions against their will, expressing over and over that they wanted to live in the community. Both had intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Both Lois and Elaine were placed in institutions as young women, as a result of complex systems of ableism and racism that had long dictated that to be disabled and poor, and especially disabled, poor and Black, meant that institutions were about the only option.

What did the Court decide? According to OlmsteadRights, the Court said that “people with disabilities have a qualified right to receive state funded supports and services in the community rather than institutions” if the person’s support determines that community supports are appropriate, if the person wants to or does not object to living in the community, and where the provision of community services is a reasonable accommodation compared to other similarly disabled people.

Since 1999, thousands of people with all kinds of disabilities have moved from institutions to the community under Olmstead consent decrees and related community programs. Check out this captioned video to learn more about the Olmstead story. While Elaine passed away in 2004, Lois continues to thrive as an artist living in the community.

The Olmstead case sparked action in states across the country to move towards community services, and away from institutions. Access Living is proud to have been part of the original legal team for the Illinois Olmstead cases: Ligas, Williams, and Colbert. (Learn more about those cases from Equip for Equality at this link). Under Colbert and Williams, Access Living works to transition people with disabilities out of nursing homes.

Worldwide, more countries are moving towards community living for disabled people, inspired by the Olmstead decision and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which guided part of the formation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

As we push our work forward, we know that there is a long way to go. We’re happy to see the Pritzker administration in Illinois has committed to making sure the Olmstead decision is upheld in our state and followed. And, Olmstead is beginning to be used in legal cases beyond what we’ve seen thus far, such as cases involving sheltered workshops and forensic hospital settings. Still, too often institutions label themselves as community-based options when they are not. That’s why we continue to work with our many allies at the state and national level to make sure that the voices of people with disabilities are heard and are driving change.

As we endure the Covid-19 pandemic both nationally and globally, the rate of infections and deaths in institutional settings housing disabled people, especially Black and brown people, reminds us all of the essential need to invest in home and community based services for our collective survival. The legacy of Olmstead is what we make it, and we mean to honor Lois and Elaine by ensuring liberation for us all.

Thank you for your advocacy, as always.