It is not every day that someone has the opportunity to meet a well-respected folk artist, let alone one who successfully freed herself and others from a life sentence in psychiatric institutions. I had the opportunity to meet Lois Curtis at the conference “Celebrating Inclusion: 15 years of the Olmstead Decision” hosted by Services for Independent Living, Inc.

Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson were the lead plaintiffs in the famous Olmstead v. LC and EW case. Both women have intellectual/developmental disabilities and spent most of their lives confined to psychiatric hospitals in Georgia. One day, after several years of segregation from the outside world, Lois reached out to Atlanta’s Legal Aid Society seeking to end her forced confinement. Curtis’ phone call and her relentless pursuit for freedom lead to an alliance with Elaine that resulted in the liberation of thousands locked away from society.

Before Lois and Elaine’s courageous advocacy, segregation was the principal that guided the systemic institutionalization of people with mental illness and disabilities. Their case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1999 the Court declared that the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities is a form of segregation, which violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This landmark decision means that states must serve people with disabilities in the most integrated, least restrictive setting in the community. Unfortunately,  it’s been 15 years since the Olmstead decision but states are still segregating people with disabilities and Ohio is the leading offender in the nation, according to Disability Rights Ohio (DRO).

Following an investigation conducted by DRO, The Center for Public Representation, and Professor Bagenstos of the University of Michigan, DRO sent a letter to Ohio officials. The letter, which calls for remedial action, indicates that Ohio’s policies promote the segregation of people with disabilities in residential placements, employment, and day service programs. Their investigation found that thousands of Ohioans are on wait lists that delay their transition to integrated residential placements. The median wait time in Ohio is over 13 years.

Why is this happening?

Well, the answer is simple. Institutional placements are paid with state and federal Medicaid dollars. For people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, home and community based placements are paid with state and county dollars. County boards of developmental disabilities have a strong economic incentive to deny people the right to live in communities.

Ohio’s policies are forcing people like Lois and Elaine to live in isolation, preventing them from leading fulfilling lives and denying us the opportunity to have diverse, inclusive communities.

Ohio must reform its policies and stop this practice of isolation.

We commend DRO for their advocacy!

Read Disability Rights Ohio’s letter here

Read more about the Olmstead case here