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Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: “Twenty years after Olmstead ruling, challenges for disabled remain”

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Serving the city's law profession since 1854

Barry C. Taylor

Lawyer’s Forum

By Barry C. Taylor

Barry C. Taylor is the vice president for Civil Rights and Systemic Litigation at Equip for Equality, the federally funded and governor-designated protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities in Illinois.

Posted June 21, 2019 3:45 PM

Historically, people with disabilities have been segregated from the rest of society and unable to participate in everyday life that we all take for granted.

When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, it expressly found that the segregation of people with disabilities continues to be a serious and pervasive social problem in our country.

Nine years after the passage of the ADA, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with developmental disabilities and mental illness, were living in a state-operated institution in Georgia.

Despite being deemed appropriate for the community, Georgia denied their request to move. They filed suit under the ADA and their case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court found that unjustified institutionalization is discrimination under the ADA. Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999).

The court went on to say that segregation perpetuates unjustified assumptions that institutionalized persons are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life. The court also found that institutional confinement severely diminishes individuals’ everyday life activities, including family relations, social contacts, work, educational advancement and cultural enrichment.

For many in the disability community, the Olmstead decision is the Brown v. Board of Education for people with disabilities, in that separate can never be equal, regardless of whether the segregation is based on race, disability or some other type of identity.

At the time of the Olmstead decision, Illinois was one of the most institutionalized states in the country and ranked 50th with respect to serving people with developmental disabilities in small community settings.

Following the Olmstead decision, Illinois convened a variety of work groups and task forces, but no meaningful change occurred. On Olmstead’s fifth anniversary, Equip for Equality and 12 other disability advocacy groups sent a letter to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich asking to work collaboratively with his administration to address the lack of community services for people with disabilities in Illinois. Tellingly, we received no response to our letter.

In our mind, that meant the only way to achieve real change in Illinois would be to file litigation to force the state to do what it was unwilling to do voluntarily — provide community living opportunities for all people with disabilities.

Accordingly, Equip for Equality and our partners Access Living and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois collectively brought three Olmstead class-action lawsuits.

The first was Ligas v. Maram and with incredible pro bono support from Dentons, was brought on behalf of people with developmental disabilities living in large state-funded, privately owned facilities, along with people living at home desperately seeking community services.

The second class action was Williams v. Blagojevich, brought on behalf of people with mental illness living in large state-funded, privately owned facilities called institutions for mental disease.

Kirkland & Ellis and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law provided invaluable support as co-counsel in that case.

The third class action was Colbert v. Blagojevich brought on behalf of people with mental illness and physical disabilities living in traditional nursing homes in Cook County. Several law firms provided significant pro bono support during the course of that case, including Dentons.

Ultimately, we negotiated consent decrees in all three cases that would systemically change the opportunity for thousands of people with disabilities to live fully integrated lives in the community with the supports they need to be successful.

In the 20 years since the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, there have been many successes in Illinois and across the country. Under the three consent decrees, more than 12,000 people with disabilities in Illinois are now living in the community.

Additionally, Equip for Equality’s abuse investigations unit found systemic abuse, neglect and rights violations that led Illinois to close two state-operated developmental centers — Lincoln and Howe.

The abuse unit is now working collaboratively with the state by monitoring individual transitions from state-operated developmental centers into the community. All of our lives are enriched by having people with disabilities more integrated in Illinois.

While there are successes to celebrate, Illinois has a long way to go to achieve true equity for people with disabilities.

Illinois continues to heavily rely upon large congregate facilities to serve thousands of people with disabilities and still ranks near the bottom of the country in serving people with disabilities in the community.

Additionally, Illinois has been found out of compliance in all three Olmstead consent decrees, either because it failed to move the required number of people into the community, or because it has not provided the resources necessary to ensure that those who have moved into the community are living fully integrated lives.

We are encouraged, however, that the Pritzker administration has committed to addressing the noncompliance findings, so that the promise of the consent decrees becomes a reality for people with disabilities in Illinois.

The 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead provides an opportunity to reflect upon the monumental impact the case has had on the lives of thousands of people with disabilities. It also is a time for the disability community to recommit our advocacy efforts until all people with disabilities in Illinois have the opportunity to live fully actualized lives in the setting of their choosin

Last updated: June 25, 2019

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