July is a season of momentous anniversaries. Most of us recognized the anniversary of the birth of our nation on Independence Day. The United States grew from the principles of equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Since 1776, we have been in a continuous process of seeking to fully understand and live those values as a nation.
Another significant anniversary is a prime example. On July 26, we will celebrate the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA helped ensure that the inalienable rights promised in 1776 could be realized by a large group of Americans – people with disabilities. Under the ADA, discrimination against people with disabilities by public or private entities became illegal. For 29 years, we have struggled to put the ADA fully into practice, but it is the law.
One historic outcome of the ADA often goes unnoticed and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Olmstead Supreme Court decision of June 19, 1999, declared that the ADA protects people with disabilities from being discriminated against through unnecessary institutionalization. That one decision did more for encouraging states to provide community services for people with disabilities than any other law or regulation in our history.
Olmstead v. L.C. began when two women with diagnoses of mental health and intellectual disabilities sued the state of Georgia for failing to provide them with community services in lieu of institutionalization. Both women had bounced in and out of a state hospital, returning each time because community supports were not available to them at home.
The court decided in favor of the women, stating that the state discriminated against them by requiring them to live in a segregated setting (the institution). Institutions come in many different shapes and sizes: state mental hospitals, nursing homes, facilities for people with intellectual disabilities. Under Olmstead, a person cannot be forced to live in an institution if they do not want to be there and their doctor agrees that they do not need that level of care.
Olmstead has been successfully invoked to pressure states into expanding home- and community-based services, developing alternatives to institutions and avoiding cuts to programs supporting community living for people with disabilities.
Twenty years later, there is still work to be done. Though Olmstead paved the way, many people with disabilities still live in institutions or institution-like settings rather than living and thriving in their communities.
The Declaration of Independence recognized the pursuit of happiness as one of our fundamental rights. This right to live life in a way that brings joy has historically been denied to many people with disabilities. This is especially true for people with intellectual disabilities, who are often not entrusted with the choice of how they live their lives, much less where they live.
As we celebrate our freedom and our pride in our nation’s commitment to these ideals, let us remember the message of Olmstead and ensure that those freedoms are for everyone.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.