Liz & Denise Share About the Importance of Olmstead

Pictured above: Liz Weintraub standing in the doorway to her apartment, where she lives with her husband, holding her keys.

On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court decided Olmstead vs. L.C. The Olmstead case recognized that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protect the right of people with disabilities to receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. In plain language, Olmstead is why people with disabilities have the right to choose to live in the community (and not an institution), and to receive services and supports where they live. Unjustified institutionalization of people with disabilities is illegal discrimination; it is as simple as that. Olmstead fundamentally changed how we think about people with disabilities, where people with disabilities live, who gets to choose where they live (THEY do!) and in many ways, I would argue, is why students in inclusive postsecondary education programs can go to college, live on campus, and participate in college life. And remember, this only happened in 1999! Just 24 years ago. Not that long ago.

But don’t just listen to me. What does Olmstead really mean for people with disabilities? Let my friend and colleague Liz Weintraub explain:

Keep “Lois’s memory alive!”

Living in the community hasn’t always been a right for people with disabilities, including me; as Denise said, it’s only been 24 years since a law was passed saying people with disabilities should live in the community. I know that students are probably thinking to themselves, “what’s the big deal about living in the community? I have always lived in the community.”  But it hasn’t always been the case for me and my friends, and not for Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Let me tell you some stories.

In 1995 Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson were two women who were placed into an institution, by their choosing, to get treatment. When their treatment was finished, they were not allowed to leave because of their disabilities. They did not like this and sued the state of Georgia and the court case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court.

So, 24 years ago the Supreme Court said in Olmstead vs. L.C. (L.C. is Lois Curtis) that people with disabilities should live in the most integrated setting which, for Lois and Elaine, was in their community. This is a big deal, because me and my friends are now allowed to live in the community just like everyone else. I had the great honor of meeting Lois around 2009 when I was working in Georgia for another job. I remember wanting to meet her because, to me, she was a hero because she fought for what was right. She was so proud of her art, that she gave me two prints that she proudly drew. Until her death in 2022, she remained active with People First, a disability advocacy organization. Like Lois, Elaine lived in the community until she died in 2004. (Here is a brief article and video about Lois Curtis.)

In the late eighties I also was sent to a place like an institution for 6 months. I was told it was a community, and it looked like a community, but it wasn’t really. Let me describe it: there were about 7-10 little cottages in a semi-circle, and I lived in one of them with a roommate that I didn’t choose. In the middle of this semi-circle was a pay phone. (Back in the eighties we didn’t all have a cell phone of our own so we had to use pay phones.) If we wanted to call anyone, we all had to share the pay phone. In the front of this “community”, there was a large rectangular building, and inside were offices and places where people could have their lunches and play games. On the edge of this “community” there was a greenhouse and a farm. And, to get into this “community,“ there was a long driveway. It wasn’t really in the community. We were separate from everyone else.

As I am writing this, I am sitting in my home office, looking out my window, and it doesn’t look like that “community” that I used to live in. What I see out of my window are trees and roads that cars and buses drive on. There are other apartments on the other side of the street. There are stores nearby that my husband and I go to when we need something. I go to work and ride the bus to get there. My husband and I tell our service provider when we want help from our direct service professional and what we want help with. Not the other way around.

Two women from Georgia stood up for their rights and now anyone can live in the community. Don’t take that for granted! We FOUGHT for it so YOU could live in the community …AND we can NOW enjoy it. So the community can be for ALL …not for SOME.. Thanks Elaine and Lois!!

About the blog authors:

Liz Weintraub, Senior Advocacy Specialist at Association of University Centers on Disability (AUCD), has a long history of leadership in self advocacy, and has held many board and advisory positions at state and national organizations. She is a full time member of the AUCD's policy team and also the host of Tuesdays With Liz: Disability Policy For All, where she attempts to make polices in accessible language so policy is accessible to all.

Denise Rozell, Director of Policy Innovation, Education and Employment Team, at Association of University Centers on Disability (AUCD). Denise works primarily on issues affecting youth in post-secondary education, employment and independent living including as the co-Director for the PROMISE Technical Assistance Center (Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income). As she says above, she is a self-described policy geek, and a valuable contributor to the work of Think College NCC.