People with intellectual and mental disabilities can thank Lois Curtis for paving the way for them to live in the community receiving the services they need.
In what was called “the most important decision for people with disabilities in history,” the Olmstead Decision justified the right for people with disabilities to live independently but would take four years to come in effect including being heard in the Supreme Court.
At the center of the 1999 lawsuit that cited a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 were Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with mental and intellectual disabilities. They were held in Georgia Regional Hospital for years after their treatment team determined they were able to live in the community because the state did not want to give them the funds they needed to live independently.
While she was growing up, Curtis was diagnosed with intellectual and mental disabilities. As a result, she would get into trouble constantly – at home and at school. The police were called several times and they would take her to jail or to a mental hospital.
However, at 11-years-old she was sent to live at Georgia Regional Hospital, a mental institution for people with disabilities. She would remain there until she was 29 years old.
For many of the 1,199,743 black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, the deck is stacked against them. Frequently “invisible disabilities” such as ADHD are not diagnosed and students do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended. African American students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools, with more than one in four boys of color with disabilities — and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities — receiving an out-of-school suspension.
Studies show that when students miss too many days, either for being truant or just being absent, they get so far behind in class that it can lead to them dropping out of school. As documented in Disability & Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success, this can lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. Today there are more than 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America. Many of them do not have high school diplomas, are functionally illiterate and are people of color.
Overall, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 84 percent of students without disabilities. However, only 57 percent of black students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 74.6 percent of black students without disabilities.
One-in-five Americans has a disability, and polls show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. There are 5.6 million African Americans with a disability in the United States. Only 28.7 percent of African Americans with disabilities are employed in the United States compared to 72 percent of African Americans without disabilities.
Road to a New Beginning
It would not be until May 11, 1995 that Curtis’ situation began to change when Sue Jamieson, an Atlanta-based legal aid attorney took Curtis’ case challenging Tommy Olmstead, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, whose decision kept Curtis in the hospital. Wilson was added later as a plaintiff in the case.
A decision would be reached more than two years later in May 1997 when Judge Marvin Shoob said that the Georgia Department of Human Resources and Regional Hospital failed to place Curtis and Wilson in adequate housing.
Because of Shoob’s ruling, the Department of Human Resources and Regional Hospital appealed on December 14, 1998, and one year later on June 22, 1999, Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader-Ginsburg decided that it was unconstitutional for Curtis and Wilson to be forced to stay in the mental institution when they could live in the community.
Bader Ginsburg created three requirements for that ruling. A person with a disability can live in the community when:
- treatment officials deem it appropriate for the patient to live in the community,
- the person doesn’t object to living in the community, and
- when there is a reasonable accommodation to live with other people who have mental disabilities.
“Institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuate unwarranted assumptions that person so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,” the decision read, in part.
Life After Olmstead
Since the Olmstead Decision went into effect in 1999, Curtis has been able to live in an apartment she shares with a woman who helps her with activities of daily living.
She takes art classes at the local hobby shop and sells her drawings for profit to buy more art supplies. She is very friendly and has no trouble making friends. She’s proactive in her life, attending monthly meetings with people who care about her to plan the next month in her life.
Curtis is living life on her own terms doing what she loves to do every day. In an interview with Lee Sanders, a Career Specialist in Roswell, Georgia, she said:
“Well, I make grits, eggs, and sausage in the morning and sweep the floor. I go out to eat sometimes. I take art classes. I draw pretty pictures and make money. I go out of town and sell me artwork. I go to church and pray to the Lord. I raise my voice high! In the summer I go to the pool and put my feet in the water. Maybe I’ll learn to swim someday. I been fishing. I seen a pig and a horse on a farm. I buy clothes and shoes. I have birthday parties. They a lot of fun. I’m not afraid of big dogs no more. I feel good about myself. My life a better life.”