The Right to Community Participation: Olmstead v. L.C.

People with disabilities have a civil right to live, work and participate in their communities. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this right in a landmark court case, Olmstead v. L.C. The Court in Olmstead said that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is a type of discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).   

The case was brought on behalf of two women with mental disabilities placed in Georgia’s state hospitals, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Both women wanted to live in the community instead of in an institution. The hospital staff had determined they could live in the community if Georgia provided them with appropriate services in an integrated setting. Curtis and Wilson claimed the state was violating the ADA by only offering them services in an institution and refusing to provide them services in the community. They took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1999, the Supreme Court held that Title II of the ADA prohibits unjustified segregation of people with disabilities. The Court described the harms of segregating people with disabilities. First, institutionalizing people who can live in the community “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 being part of a family, working, going to school, and having social contacts.

The Supreme Court’s decision interpreted the ADA’s “integration mandate,” a Department of Justice regulation that requires that services, programs, and activities be provided in “the most integrated setting appropriate.” The most integrated setting is defined as one that enables people with and without disabilities to interact to the fullest extent possible. In order to comply with the ADA’s integration mandate, the Court determined that public entities are required to provide community-based services when those services are appropriate; the individual receiving services is not opposed to community-based treatment; and community-based treatment can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available and the needs of other people who are also receiving disability services.

Over the last 20 years, the Olmstead decision has been applied to the many ways people with disabilities can be segregated. Olmstead has been used to challenge the segregation of people in a range of settings, including public and private nursing facilities; psychiatric hospitals and intermediate care facilities; board and care homes; sheltered workshops and segregated day programs; and segregated educational programs. It has been extended to people at serious risk of institutionalization or segregation, including people with urgent needs on waitlists for community services, people subject to cuts in community services, and students with disabilities who are directly placed by schools into sheltered workshops or segregated day programs.

Despite progress, too many people with disabilities still remain unnecessarily in institutions or other segregated settings and many others at serious risk of entering these settings. This reality has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on people in nursing facilities and other congregate settings. However, the Olmstead decision and its enforcement has slowly but surely changed the landscape across the country for people with disabilities, leading to more people with disabilities being provided the supports they need to live, work, and meaningfully participate in their communities. 

Learn more about CPR’s Olmstead litigation and recent publications here.

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