Olmstead Decision

SUMMARY: The Olmstead decision, which was issued by the US Supreme Court in 1999, has had a major impact on many people and communities. It clarified that because of Title II of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), state-funded supports and services for people with disabilities must be community-based when appropriate.

Before the United States had the Olmstead decision, it had a woman named Lois Curtis phoning the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Curtis called repeatedly to say “I want to get out!”

Curtis, along with Elaine Wilson, was living in the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. Both women had mental health and developmental disabilities and had been voluntarily admitted to hospital. After their treatments, mental health professionals had stated that each woman was ready to move to a community-based program. Even so, they both remained in the hospital for many years, despite repeated efforts to obtain services in the community. That’s why Curtis kept calling.

Eventually, Sue Jamieson, an attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Curtis, seeking disability services and supports in the community (Wilson was added to the suit a few months later).

The Supreme Court Decision

“In sum, we conclude that Title II of the ADA requires States to provide community-based treatment for persons with mental disabilities, when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that such placement is appropriate, when the affected persons do not oppose such treatment, and when the placement can be reasonably accommodated taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.” —Justice Ginsburg, Olmstead v. L. C.

This lawsuit started in Georgia and went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The case was called Olmstead v. L.C. (Olmstead is the last name of Tommy Olmstead, who was the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources; L.C. is Lois Curtis’s initials.)

The Supreme Court issued its decision on June 22, 1999. The decision held that under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act—the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all services, programs, and activities provided to the public by state and local governments—unjustified institutional isolation is discrimination. In other words, the court determined that Georgia had discriminated against Curtis and Wilson because they were segregated in a state-run facility that required them to live with others with disabilities. The two women were not allowed to live in an integrated setting, with appropriate services and supports in place, in the community. This landmark decision paved the way for millions of people with disabilities to live and work in their own communities.

The Supreme Court held that state-funded community services and supports must be made available and accessible to people with disabilities as long as three conditions are in place:

  1. The services are appropriate, as determined by professionals.
  2. The individual does not object to receiving community supports.
  3. Community-based supports can be reasonably accommodated, upon consideration of the resources available to the public entity and the needs of others with disabilities who are in similar situations.

[ Listen: Olmstead v. L.C. opinion—audio links in left sidebar ]

[ Read: The ADA and Title II Public Entities ]

More Court Cases

Although the Olmstead decision specifically involved one type of state institution, a psychiatric hospital, further court rulings quickly made it clear that Olmstead applies to all state- and Medicaid-funded institutions. In fact, several rulings took place in the Northeast ADA Center’s region (New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands).

U.S. v. New York

In the 2013 case U.S. v. New York, a settlement agreement stated that individuals with mental illness who reside in 23 large adult homes in New York City should receive services in the “most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.” In other words, individuals with disabilities should have the opportunity to live, work, and fully participate in their communities, with necessary services and supports funded by the state.

Sciarrillo v. Christie

In New Jersey in 2013, in Sciarrillo v. Christie, private plaintiffs opposed the state’s deinstitutionalization plan for its facilities that were housing people with developmental disabilities. The District Court of New Jersey dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit, rejecting this “obverse Olmstead” argument.

Disability Rights New Jersey, Inc. v. Velez

In 2005, Disability Rights New Jersey, Inc. v. Velez concerned hundreds of people with developmental disabilities who were residing in several large state institutions. These people alleged that the state failed to provide them with services and supports in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, and that unnecessary segregation of individuals with disabilities in state-run institutions is a form of discrimination prohibited by the ADA. In this court case, the United States filed an amicus curiae brief (friend of the court brief), asserting that New Jersey was failing to serve individuals with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. As of 2020, the case is still pending.

U.S. v. Puerto Rico

The ADA case U.S. v. Puerto Rico involves all people with developmental disabilities served in Puerto Rico. Over the years, Puerto Rico has closed all six of its residential institutions and set up a community service system for hundreds of people with developmental disabilities in integrated community settings. In 2016, a court order clarified that the group covered by this case includes all people with developmental disabilities in the system and not just those who previously lived in one of the closed institutions.

The US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, continues to work with Puerto Rico to improve its delivery of health care and behavioral services to people with complex conditions. Work also continues to increase the number of people working in integrated community settings.

The Impact of Olmstead

Although over 20 years have passed since the Olmstead decision, its ripple effect continues to impact the lives of people with disabilities today. The Olmstead decision is about more than just the lives of Curtis and Wilson. In the decision, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg reflected on the true intent of the ADA. The ADA is a civil rights law and is intended to be interpreted broadly and comprehensively. Ginsburg wrote that “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.”

It has always been these “unwarranted assumptions” regarding the dignity and worth of people with disabilities that Olmstead addresses. It’s about people being able to choose where and with whom they live. It’s about people being able to choose to socialize and enjoy recreation with friends and neighbors in their own communities. It’s about people being able to work in a job of their choice, earn a paycheck, and live the American Dream.

The lawsuits mentioned earlier in this article show that the story of Olmstead is not over. Americans with disabilities, and their families and advocates, continue to fight for the right to live their lives in the public square, with and beside their friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow community members. All too often people with disabilities have very few, if any, options or choices in their lives.

What about Wilson and Curtis?

Elaine Wilson, who passed away in 2004, explained her driving force, and the purpose of Olmstead: “When I was in an institution, I didn't like myself. I was trapped…I had no hope. I thought, Oh God, Oh God—when am I ever going to leave here?”[1] and “When I was in the institution, I felt like I was in a little box and there was no way out.”[2] Wilson was subjected to years of isolation, shock treatments, and psychotropic drugs that ruined her kidneys. After Olmstead and many years and 36 institutions later, Elaine lived out her remaining years in her own community in Georgia.

Lois Curtis spent her teenage years and up until her mid-twenties being shuttled from institution to institution, all the while segregated from society only because she had a disability. She took up chain smoking as one of the only outlets available to her, since she was denied her true passion for painting. As of 2020 when this article was written, she lives in her own apartment, takes art classes, sells her art for profit, and makes her own choices for what is best for her life. In her own words, Curtis describes her life today:

“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.”[3]


ADA.gov, Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone, Olmstead Enforcement

Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, Olmstead v. L.C.

Impact, Volume 28, Number 1: Feature issue on the ADA and people with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities

Oyez, Olmstead v. L.C.

Olmstead Champion Meets the President

Olmstead Rights website

Unlocked: The Lois Curtis Story

Throwback Thursday: Olmstead v. L. C. (1999)


[1] Elaine Wilson’s story continued. Disability Integration Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc.

[2] Lee, K. (2015, April 23). Throwback Thursday: Olmstead v. L.C. (1999). SWSP blog.

[3] Curtis, L. & Sanders, L. (2015). Lois Curtis on life after Olmstead. Impact, 28(1), 20. University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration (UCEDD) & Research and Training Center on Community Living.



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