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Olmstead – 20 Years of Community Integration

Twenty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. L.C. that the unjustified institutionalization of people with disabilities is discrimination under the ADA.

For many people with disabilities, this was a watershed moment on par with Brown v. Board of Education. Olmstead says that separate will never be equal for people with disabilities.

On Olmstead’s 20th anniversary, let’s look back on how this momentous decision came to be, how it affected the lives of people with disabilities, and what still needs to be done.

In 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, it stated that the segregation of people with disabilities was a serious and pervasive social problem in our country.

Despite the strong rebuttal of segregation and the new protections offered by the ADA, many people with disabilities continued to live in state-operated institutions against their wishes to move into the community.

Nine years later, people were still struggling to move into the community. Then, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with developmental disabilities and mental illness, stood up for their rights. The women had asked to move from the state-operated institution they were living in into the community. Even though the move was deemed appropriate, their request was denied by the state.

They filed suit under the ADA and their case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1999, the Supreme Court found that unjustified institutionalization is discrimination under the ADA.

While this landmark decision paved the way for many to move into the community, the fight for inclusion didn’t end there. Five years after Olmstead was decided, Equip for Equality filed three Olmstead class-action lawsuits with our partners Access Living and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. We obtained consent degrees for all three cases.

Ligas v. Maram – With Dentons serving as co-counsel, this statewide community integration class action has already led to about 7,800 people receiving community services. This year, we argued the State was out of compliance with the Consent Decree and a federal judge ordered the State to ensure that people with developmental disabilities receive quality community services.

Williams v. Blagojevich – With help from Kirkland & Ellis and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, nearly 2,500 people with mental illness have been able to move from institutions into the community.

Colbert v. Blagojevich – Several firms, including Dentons, worked with us on behalf of 20,000 people with mental illness and/or physical disabilities living in nursing homes in Cook county. Over 2,400 people with physical disabilities and/or mental illness have moved into the community.

In addition to helping thousands of people move into the community through the consent decrees, our Abuse Investigations Unit directly contributed to Illinois to closing two state-operated developmental centers (Lincoln and Howe) because of systemic abuse, neglect, and rights violations we uncovered.

Despite the great things that have come from Olmstead and the three class actions, there is still much to be done. For example, Illinois has been found out of compliance in all three consent decrees. We continue to work to ensure anyone who wants to transition into the community is able to.

With the Pritzker administration committed to addressing the noncompliance findings and the energy of our partners and supporters, we believe the promise of living in the community offered by the consent decrees can become a reality for people with disabilities in Illinois.

Last updated: November 04, 2019

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