Olmstead: A Step Forward For Disability Rights 

In 1999, the United States Supreme Court held that people with a disability have the right to receive state funded supports and services in the community rather than live in an institution as long as: 

  1. The person’s treatment professionals determine that community supports are appropriate
  2. The person doesn’t object to living in the community
  3. Services within the community would be a reasonable accommodation when balanced with other similarly situated individuals with a disability

This decision, known as Olmstead, is considered “the most important civil rights decision for people with disabilities in our country’s history” by Former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, who passed away at age 87 last month, was an advocate for those with disabilities and played a part in making this important decision. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act website (, the Olmstead case began when two women, who had developmental disabilities and mental illness, were admitted voluntarily into the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Georgia. After the women received treatment, professionals noted they were ready to move to a community-based program. Unfortunately, the women would return home and struggle once again, which would lead them to returning to the hospital. 

In April of that year, the Court decided people with disabilities deserve support in community settings and that it is discrimination to keep someone in a hospital just for having a disability. Justice Ginsburg noted at the time, “the institutionalization of people with disabilities wrongly perpetuates a stereotype that we are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.” 

In the 1800’s, states throughout the country began to build large scale asylums for people with mental health and other disabilities. These institutions grew until the 1960’s when public policy began to change towards deinstitutionalization. Over time, these institutions were recognized by lawmakers and society as unsafe due to the large number of people in them with an inadequate level of care as well as discriminatory due to segregating based only on one’s abilities. In 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed which helped change the opinion on these institutions and helped fight against discrimination for those with a disability. 

While the Olmstead case itself focused on psychiatric hospitals, the Supreme Court decided the law needed to apply to all state and Medicaid funded institutions, including nursing facilities. Throughout the years, many similar cases were decided in favor of those with a disability and in 2009, Olmstead became a priority of its Civil Rights division. states, “as Olmstead expands, it is possible to foresee a time when all Americans will have the support they need regardless of the extent of any disability or impairment to live in the community and not in institutions and nursing facilities.” 

Despite the many issues those with a disability still face, the decisions made in the Olmstead case and those after have helped create a more inclusive and integrative society for those with disabilities.

Recent Posts