Olmstead v. L.C: Community Integration is a Fundamental Right for People with Disabilities

wheelchairThe 1999 Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C. ruled that segregation of people with disabilities is discrimination and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case was brought before the court by Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women living with developmental disabilities who were voluntarily admitted to the Georgia Regional Hospital for treatment. After finishing treatment and despite being told by their doctors they were ready to go to a community-based program, Lois and Elaine remained confined to Georgia Regional Hospital for several years. 

The two women filed a lawsuit to be released from the hospital, arguing their confinement was a violation of their rights under the ADA’s “integration mandate,” which requires that people living with disabilities receive care and services in the most integrated setting possible, according to their needs. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling the ADA prohibits the “unjustified segregation of people with disabilities” and publicly run care facilities are required to provide services in the most integrated setting possible when it’s appropriate, when the person with disabilities wants to live in an integrated setting, and when providing services in an integrated setting can be reasonably accommodated by the state.

Olmstead v. L.C. set an important principle for how communities need to uphold the rights of people with disabilities and carved a path for future lawsuits that would reaffirm the right of people with disabilities to live in the most integrated setting possible. For example, one court ruled that Olmstead v. L.C. also protects people currently living in communities but at risk of institutionalization; others have required states to provide additional Medicaid-funded services to ensure they are following Olmstead v. L.C.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is responsible for supporting and enforcing the Olmstead v. L.C. decision. As a result of this enforcement, individuals with disabilities who had been institutionalized for years have been able to rejoin their communities, countless people have avoided institutionalization, and additional resources have been provided to expand the availability of community-based services. Despite this progress, there is still work to be done to ensure states are in compliance with Olmstead v. L.C. and the ADA, and the fundamental rights of people living with disabilities are recognized and upheld.