It’s perhaps an odd twist of history that fewer people know the name of Lois Curtis than the name of the man she’s suing. Tommy Olmstead was commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources – which oversaw the state’s mental health services in the 1990s – and by his name one of America’s most important civil rights cases for people with disabilities is still known.
Olmstead v. LC, or “Olmstead” as it is commonly known, was a 1999 US Supreme Court decision. Based on the principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Olmstead decision stated that people with disabilities — be mental illness, cognitive impairment or other illnesses – could not be institutionalized just because they have a disability. In addition, people with disabilities have a right to government-funded services and support necessary to live in their community.
Like so many Supreme Court decisions that become the law of the country, this ruling can be traced back to a single person. In this case, that person is Lois Curtis, the “LC” in Olmstead v. LC who deserves to be recognized alongside every other civil rights pioneer during Black History Month.
Curtis was born in Atlanta in 1967 and has lived with both a mental illness and a cognitive disability. Her family struggled to meet her needs. She was known to have wandered off and been missed; The police sometimes took her to prison and sometimes to a psychiatric hospital. From the age of 11 and over the next 20 years, Curtis was at Georgia Regional Hospital Atlanta many times. Her desire was to live in the community but there simply weren’t any facilities there to support her – and when she had problems she was taken back to the hospital.
In May 1995, Susan Jamieson, an attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Curtis’ behalf, challenging her placement at Georgia Regional Hospital. A second plaintiff, Elaine Wilson, also of Georgia, was allowed to join the case the next year.
In March 1997, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that Georgia’s failure to provide the women with appropriate community-based treatment violated Title II of the ADA. The state of Georgia appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which again ruled in favor of Lois and Elaine. The state then appealed to the US Supreme Court; the hearing took place on April 21, 1999.
When the Supreme Court announced its decision in June 1999, every state was suddenly faced with the prospect of building and ensuring community-based services and support for people with mental illness and disabilities.
In Georgia, much of this work has fallen to community service boards such as Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, which provide not only community-based primary behavioral health care but also high-intensity services for individuals with acute needs. The Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program was designed as a “hospital without walls” to specifically support community residents who may have been institutionalized in the past.
For the past 24 years, states have worked to get people out of hospitals and into their communities. A lawsuit after Olmstead, Georgia, arguing the state is not doing so quickly enough, has led to ongoing surveillance by the US Department of Justice. As in many other states, progress has been made, but much remains to be done.
Lois Curtis was able to spend her days in her Clarkston community, received the support she needed, and became a well-known artist. Sadly, she died last November at the age of 55. But thanks to her, hundreds of thousands of Americans with mental illness and disabilities are able to live their lives in their communities. It’s a legacy that’s meaningful not just during Black History Month, but every day of the year.
Melanie Dallas is a Licensed Professional Counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for people with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 13-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Murray and Whitfield counties.