We often hear about the Olmstead decision and Minnesota’s ongoing work on its Olmstead Plan, to work toward integration of people with disabilities in their communities. The legal fight is well-documented. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W. that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court decided that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when such services are appropriate; when the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and when community-based services can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the public entity and the needs of others who are also receiving disability services.
Olmstead, of course, was Tommy Olmstead, then human resources commissioner for the state of Georgia. Who was L.C.?
L.C. was Lois Curtis, who died this fall of pancreatic cancer. She was 55 and lived outside of Atlanta.
Curtis and Elaine Wilson, the court case lead plaintiffs, both lived with mental illness and developmental disabilities. They were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit of Georgia Regional Hospital. Following treatment, mental health professionals stated that each woman was ready to move to a community-based program. But the women remained institutionalized, finally filing suit under the ADA. The case went all the way to the nation’s highest court.
Judges made two key points in the 1999 ruling. One was that institutionalization of people who could be living in their communities “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life.” A second point was that institutionalization “severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.”
National Public Radio was among the many news outlets reporting on Curtis’ death, drawing on an interview with her attorney, Sue Jamieson. Jamieson met Curtis during a state hospital tour.
Jamieson recalled that Curtis asked, “Get me out of here. Would you please get me out of here? When am I getting out of here?” Curtis kept calling Jamison after that visit, asking when she could get out. That led to the lawsuit and landmark court decision.
The court decision was a major change for people with disabilities and elders, shifting thinking away from institutional care to systems meant to support people in their homes and home communities for as long as possible.
Curtis lived in a series of homes after the court decision, getting help from caregivers and finding a circle of supportive friends. She was also able to hone her talents as an artist. She made pencil and pastel drawings of animals and flowers, as well as portraits.
In 2011, she was invited to the White House on the anniversary of the Olmstead decision, according to NPR. She gave President Barack Obama a framed picture she had created, “Girl in an Orange Dress.” It was one of a series of self-portraits Curtis did of herself as a young girl. She had no photos of herself from the years she lived in state psychiatric hospitals.
Curtis in interviews spoke of how glad she was to be free. Her co-plaintiff, Elaine Wilson, had similar experiences, being able to blossom and live a meaningful life when able to be in her home community with assistance. Wilson died in 2004.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at