Olmstead: A Reflection on the 1999 Landmark Supreme Court Decision
By Becca Bauer
It has been nearly 13 years since the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark Olmstead Decision that challenged the unnecessary institutionalization of individuals with disabilities. The Supreme Court held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), individuals with developmental disabilities have the right to live in the community rather than institutions.
Although the decision was decided in 1999, the story began long before. Two Georgia citizens, Lois Curtis and the late Elaine Wilson, who both spent the majority of their lives receiving mental support services in state institutions, decided they wanted to get out and make the transition into the community. After clinical assessments by State employees and their treatment teams, both women were determined to be better off receiving treatment in an integrated community-based setting rather than a state-run institution. Nevertheless, both were denied release and filed suit in 1995 for disability services in the community, sparking what began as a local fight for the rights of people with disabilities into a national phenomenon.
The Atlanta Legal Aid Society, led by attorney Sue Jamieson, brought the case to court on behalf of Curtis and Wilson. According to Atlanta Legal Aid, they argued the position that “The State of Georgia could no longer offer disability services to a person with mental or physical disabilities in an institutional setting if an individual could be better served in a community-based setting.”
The case was heard in 1997 in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Georgia and produced a successful outcome, ruling that the State was under violation of the ADA Act for failing to provide individuals with integrated community services. After the ruling, the State of Georgia appealed to the US Supreme Court, which set off the landmark case, known as Olmstead v L.C. and E.W. The case was brought against the late Tommy Olmstead, the Georgia State Commissioner of Human Resources at the time, and created national attention, bringing hundreds of disability advocates to rally in Washington, DC as the case unfolded.
Again the Court upheld the decision that the continued institutionalization of people “Who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuated unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life” and violated the ADA Act.
Because of two women brave enough to stand up for their rights, the Olmstead case had a profound impact on the disability rights movement, the supports for people with disabilities and tens of thousands of people have been released from unjust and unnecessary institutionalization.
What’s Going on With Georgia’s Olmstead Plan Now?
The 1999 Supreme Court ruling prompted that each state must comply with the Olmstead Decision and meet the obligations under the ADA Act and “demonstrate that it had a comprehensive, effectively working plan for placing qualified persons …” with disabilities “… in less restrictive settings and a waiting list that moved at a reasonable pace.”
As the Olmstead State, Georgia began constructing an Olmstead plan shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision; however, Georgia has yet to fully implement a plan 13 years later. Over the years several attempts were made to move Georgia closer to Olmstead compliance, and various plans were drafted, as well as the creation of an Olmstead Planning Committee in 2001.
A draft Olmstead plan was completed in 2010, while Governor Sonny Perdue was in office, at the same time Georgia and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Settlement Agreement was completed. The lawsuit charged the State with unlawful segregation of people with developmental disabilities and mental illness in state facilities in violation the ADA Act and the Olmstead Decision. The settlement agreement resulted in Georgia’s continued commitment to comply with Olmstead and expanded on the State’s previous plans, which include efforts from 2003 and 2008.
Under the agreement, the State had to provide community alternatives to the institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities, in addition to services for those at-risk of institutionalization to prevent future admissions. According to the agreement, over the next five years, Georgia must increase assertive community treatment, intensive case management, case management, supported housing and supported employment programs to serve 9,000 individuals with mental illness in community settings among other things.
The agreement also increases community crisis response through crisis services centers, crisis stabilization programs, mobile crisis response and crisis apartments. It also creates additional Medicaid waivers to transition individuals with developmental disabilities from state hospitals to community settings and increased crisis, respite, family and housing support services will be available to individuals with developmental disabilities.
Since the agreement, Corinna Magelund, the current Olmstead coordinator and Olmstead planning committee (OPC) chairman, says, “The committee has been working to align the Georgia Olmstead Plan with the 2010 Georgia/DOJ Settlement Agreement and to expand on the 2010 draft plan to ensure it is current with important initiatives ongoing in State agencies and communities.”
“The major changes focus on initiatives that include more resourcing of home and community-based services, including individuals with disabilities in publicly-funded programs in institutional settings, diversion of individuals at risk of institutionalization and housing partnerships that support Olmstead principles,” she says.
Although the OPC recognizes this will be an ongoing effort and that the goals may change or be reevaluated through the process, the committee has identified nine strategic goals to focus on:
• Olmstead Compliance: Support the US Supreme Court Decision
• Transition: Move individuals who meet Olmstead criteria from institutions to integrated community settings with appropriate supports/services for the individual
• Diversion: Divert individuals at risk for institutionalization into the most integrated settings with adequate supports for the needs of the individual
• System Capacity: Develop providers, support networks, systems and communities to assist individuals with disabilities in obtaining personcentered services
• Resources: Develop resources to eliminate the unnecessary institutionalization of individuals with disabilities whose needs can be
met in the community
• Evaluation: Create a structure for reviewing the progress and barriers to implementation of the Olmstead Plan and obtain input from individuals we serve, families, guardians, stakeholders, providers, state agencies, legislators and others involved
• Sustainment: Ensure long-term funding and quality of service and
support through strategies, policies and procedures that can be sustained over their lifetime in the community. Sustain systems that meet person-centered planning need requirements
• Policy: Create and implement policies to support Olmstead compliance
• Data: Create data systems that provide accurate, timely information to provide safe and healthy environments, manage resources, develop strategies and evaluate progress
As the plan is being developed, it is receiving input from a diverse group of people including individuals with disabilities, their families, advocates, state agencies and providers. The OPC has been organizing workgroups and focus groups where all are invited to listen to discussions on the Olmstead Plan and share their opinions, so the plan will take into account all those who will be impacted by it.
The plan will then be reviewed by the Olmstead Planning Committee and state agencies. After any recommendations are added and the plan is approved, it will be presented to the Governor’s Office as the recommended Georgia Olmstead Plan. The Governor’s Office of Policy and Budget will then review the plan with state agencies for final approval and implementation.
Magelund and the rest of the committee aim to have the plan completed for review by January 2013, but know the task ahead is ambitious and could change. “I am excited about my opportunity to work as Georgia’s Olmstead coordinator, and we have just completed many hours of intense workgroup meetings developing our draft Olmstead Plan,” she said. “I am proud of our efforts so far. More importantly, this updated plan will assist our State in making a major investment in Olmstead and assisting individuals with disabilities to live in integrated settings in our community.”
Long Road Home – Olmstead, It’s the Law! Set Our People Free!
Each year, People First of Georgia organizes and hosts a series of Long Road Home events dedicated to honoring the 1999 Olmstead Decision that restored rights to thousands of people with disabilities and recognizes the two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who started it all.
Long Road Home celebrations were first started in 2004 by Kate Gainer as the founding chairperson and have honored the Olmstead Decision through marches, rallies and public events to bring public awareness to the importance of the decision, as well as the fact that many people are still waiting to transition from state hospitals and nursing homes and be integrated into the community.
For the 13th annual Olmstead anniversary, Long Road Home threw a series of events across Georgia for two weeks, visiting eight different locations. The main Long Road Home celebration was held on June 22 in the Georgia State Capitol featuring several well-known state advocates and displays from artists with disabilities including Lois Curtis.
Cheri Mitchell, former president of People First of Georgia and a driving force behind spreading Long Road Home nationally, opened the celebration and thanked those in attendance for their support and dedicated her advocacy efforts to her late husband, Samuel Mitchell, a leader in People First and Long Road Home who continually fought for the rights of all people with disabilities.
The MC of the event kept the crowd entertained and in laughter with a “name that speaker” guessing game. Among those who addressed the Long Road Home supporters were Renita Bundrage, current People First of Atlanta president and Vice President of People First of Georgia, Bernard Baker, providing a history of People First and Long Road Home; Edith Shokes from the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network; Jacques Swattford, a 16-year US Army veteran sharing about his disability and Linda Pogue on behalf of Lois Curtis.
Talley Wells, director of the Disability Integration Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, said he is focused on ensuring that Olmstead is implemented. “A lot has been done, but it’s still moving slowly,” Wells said. “Olmstead needs to be as well known in Atlanta as Coca-Cola because it is that important.”
The Director of Legal Advocacy for the Georgia Advocacy Office, Josh Norris, also spoke on the importance of moving people with disabilities into the most integrated setting. Norris was influential in the Department of Justice’s Settlement Agreement and continues to play a key role in its implementation. He remarked that while the process has been slow, there is finally beginning to be progress with Georgia’s Olmstead Plan.
The event also featured an open mic time where more than four people volunteered to share their joy and freedom stories on leaving their facilities and becoming an integrated member of the community.
As the celebration came to an end, Bernard Baker united all of those in attendance into one voice, chanting, “Get us out. Keep me out. Don’t put me in,” made well known by Sam Mitchell, in the State Capitol for all to hear and leaving a lasting impact.
Afterwards, guests were invited to browse the artwork displays of Lois Curtis and Jerome Lawrence.
Where is Lois Curtis Now?
After bravely stepping up to voice her rights and desire to live in a community-integrated setting rather than the state facilities, where she had spent the majority of her life, Lois Curtis has been living independently in Stone Mountain, GA for 18 months. She no longer attends a day program, but she participates in a variety of activities in the community, such as art classes. Lois meets regularly with her Microboard members, which are formalized circles of support.
Linda Pogue, a friend and one of Lois’ Microboard members, speaks on Lois’ opportunity to live independently in the community, “It is the little things Lois shows she enjoys. For instance, she can go into her kitchen and make her own coffee whenever she wants,” she said. “Lois has control of her own kitchen.” Pogue also said Lois enjoys visiting with her neighbors and friends, visiting Stone Mountain Village, going to coffee shops and restaurants and spending time on her patio.
Lois is also becoming a recognized artist and devotes much of her time to her artwork. Lois has participated in several exhibitions and her artwork has been displayed in venues across the country. One of Lois’ greatest memories is returning to Washington, DC 12 years after her landmark case, where she had the honor to meet President Obama in the Oval Office and present him with a gift of one of her original paintings.
Today, Lois travels across Georgia and the US sharing her story and addressing supporters and advocates on the importance of Olmstead. She makes sure people are aware that there are still many people with disabilities stuck in facilities and being deprived of their rights, and she encourages people to stand up for themselves and live
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