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Olmstead vs LC (federal)

While Maine was working to build a system of care for people with developmental disabilities outside of institutions, a legal case before the Supreme Court finally codified the idea that people with developmental disabilities had the right to life in the community.

This lawsuit, brought against the Georgia Department of Human Services by two women who were institutionalized despite being able to live in the community, successfully argued that it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to confine anyone to an institution when that is not the “least restrictive environment” appropriate to their care. 

The Court explained that their decision “reflects two evident judgments”: that “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life” and that “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.”

The Olmstead decision had long lasting impacts on the nascent movement towards home and community-based services and became the legal undergirding of new systems across the country.

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Theme Alert!


Values Check

Who and what do we value in our society? How do we determine someone’s “worth”, and whether they are deserving of help when they need it? Are all people really equal – and do we treat everyone as equally human?

People with developmental disabilities were sent to institutions because they were seen as useless or even dangerous to society. Their value in a place like Pineland rested on their potential for being trained to do menial labor – a Pineland resident could potentially get a furlough or even release from the institution if they could show that they could work.

In general, people with developmental disabilities throughout our history have been dismissed, patronized, and dehumanized. Doctors assumed that people with developmental disabilities didn’t feel pain, caretakers believed that they did not need friendships or hobbies or someone to communicate with, and society saw them as dangerous and unfit.

There were also people and moments in history that shifted our assumptions about the value of people with developmental disabilities – President Kennedy’s experience of loving his sister with disabilities led to huge policy shifts that impacted people with developmental disabilities across our country, and the brave self-advocates who organized a civil rights movement led directly to another president signing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The question must be posed, what is the value of all potential members of the community, with or without disability, to the very health and fiber of the community?