RespectAbility mourns the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The NAACP and others have noted that former Pres. William Clinton, when nominating Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, referred to her as the Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights. We in the disability community recognize that, as the author of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), she is the Thurgood Marshall of disability rights as well. Justice Ginsburg often spoke about how her Jewish background – and growing up in the shadows of the Holocaust – led her to be an advocate for equality of all people, including those with disabilities.
Often hailed as the legal linchpin of independent living for people with disabilities, her powerful decision mandated that people with disabilities should live in the least restrictive environment possible. The opinion begins with a technical reading of regulations, but its centerpiece is really Justice Ginsburg’s recognition of the value and humanity of people with disabilities, and the danger of shutting us away.
In the heart of the opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote, “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination… [because: First], institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life. … Second, confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.”
Her powerful statements while delivering this opinion epitomize what she had learned as a Jewish woman growing up watching the Holocaust from afar.
“In striving to drain dry the waters of prejudice and oppression, we must rely on measures of our own creation — upon the wisdom of our laws and the decency of our institutions, upon our reasoning minds and our feeling hearts,” she said at the United States Holocaust Museum in 2014. “And as a constant spark to carry on, upon our vivid memories of the evils we wish to banish from our world.”
And it was because she brought both her heart and her mind – combined with her Jewish ideals influencing her – that Justice Ginsburg delivered the Olmstead decision. It was this true embrace of the value and dignity of human life, to which Ginsburg referred in the close of her Holocaust Museum speech, when she said, “U’vacharta b’chaim. It means: Choose life.”
Even as we honor her life and mourn her passing, we are grateful for the gift that was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who brought her strong heart, her keen intellect, and her unfailing commitment of the pursuit of justice into every moment of her 87 years of life. Her commitment to justice has allowed so many of us to “choose life.” As a disability organization grounded in Jewish values, we commit to try to emulate the example of this woman of valor as we live what she so strongly believed: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”