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Black History Month: Honoring Lois Curtis

As we round the corner on Black History Month, we feel it important to honor Lois Curtis, an artist and disability advocate who paved the way for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to get out of institutional settings and live within communities. Lois Curtis, a black woman, helped start one of the most influential and life altering legal cases in the disability community. This landmark case, that impacts every person with an I/DD across this country is better known as Olmstead v. United States.

The Olmstead Act was passed into law to implement this important decision and it changed the landscape for people with I/DD forever. The Olmstead Act sits as one of the most groundbreaking laws in the I/DD world, right up there with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Though her name and face might not be well known today, Lois Curtis’s face smiles today, due to her no longer living in an institution – and the hundreds of thousands of faces that have come after her smile along. If you Google “Faces of Olmstead” you will see the impact Lois Curtis brought to our nation and find many personal stories of people, whose lives have been improved by the Olmstead decision.

Let’s dive into Lois Curtis’s life:

Lois Curtis, a woman with I/DD and mental illness, was committed to a state run institution in Georgia when she was 11 years old and spent the next nearly 20 years of her life in and out of institutions. Following medical treatment, mental health professionals stated that Curtis was ready to move to a community-based program, but she remained restricted to the institution for several more years. On May 11, 1995, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lois Curtis challenging her confinement at Georgia Regional Hospital Atlanta, based on Title II of the ADA, which prohibits public entities, including state and local governments, from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities” by excluding them from services and activities due to their disability. Curtis was the initial plaintiff; she was later joined by Elaine Wilson.

In 1997 a judge ruled in favor of Curtis and Wilson, but the decision was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, ensuring this case would set the precedent for the entire country. In 1999, Curtis, who was then 29 years old, was a key figure in the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg majority opinion which found that it was unconstitutional for individuals with disabilities to be forced to live in an institution, when they could live in the community. In its decision, the Court reached two significant conclusions: First, that “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life.” And second, “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.” Although the Olmstead decision only involved a psychiatric hospital, the decision applied to all state and Medicaid funded institutions and to individuals at risk of institutionalization. The number of people living in institutions had been declining for the previous twenty years, but the Olmstead decision made it unconstitutional to keep someone in an institution when they could live in their community. The Olmstead Act interpreted the decision to mean that states HAD to serve people in the least restrictive setting where their needs could be met.

The Olmstead decision would have far-reaching positive impacts on the lives of so many people with intellectual disabilities and/or mental illness. The court cases that trickled in after the 1999 decision helped shape the framework that we know today. It was in 2009, when the United States Justice Department made Olmstead a priority and began enforcing the decision at the state level, that the impact was truly seen. Across the country, countless people living with disabilities have benefited from this historic decision. It granted individuals the autonomy to live their lives as they desire – to enjoy what so many others take for granted.

While the disability community owes a gratitude to Lois Curtis, her life extends far past this important court case. She now gets community-based supports and is able to focus on her creative endeavors. She is an artist, known for her portraits, and sells her work in many galleries in Georgia. She enjoys singing and writing Motown songs. In an interview with Lee Sanders, a Career Specialist in Roswell, Georgia, she said:

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.

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