Advocates Celebrate 5th Anniversary of Olmstead Decision

47 year old, Elaine Wilson, characterized with a mild mental disability and a personality disorder, just wanted out of Georgia Regional Hospital, where she had been a mental health patient. In 1995, Wilson joined a lawsuit filed by fellow patient 31 year old, Lois Curtis, who had been diagnosed with a mild mental disability and schizophrenia. She had been institutionalized for three years at Georgia Regional before Atlanta Legal Aid lawyers filed suit in federal court in Atlanta on her behalf.

Sue Jamieson, an Atlanta Legal Aid lawyer, contended that "The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that people with disabilities get to decide if they want to live a reasonably normal life in a community setting." Jamieson's arguments had prevailed in Atlanta when U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob first ruled in her favor and in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when a three-judge panel also ruled in her favor. "Certainly the denial of community placements to individuals with disabilities such as L.C. and E.W. is precisely the kind of segregation that Congress sought to eliminate," Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote in a unanimous opinion.

Before the case even reached the Supreme Court both women had been released and were living successfully on their own. Wilson had taken up ceramics, crocheting and cooking while living with a roommate in College Park. While Curtis takes six classes a day at a rehabilitation center with an interest in art, a far cry from her stay at Georgia Regional, where she sat in a day room for hours at a time and smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day. Since her release, she has stopped smoking and lives in a group home in Decatur.

The case continued on to the U.S. Supreme Court because 26 states joined Georgia in its appeal and in December of 1998 the high court decided to hear the case. Tommy Olmstead, then commissioner of Georgia's Department of Human Resources with the support of past Governor Roy Barnes appealed to the Supreme Court that States have the right to continue denying community access to people with disabilities because it had been historically in the best interests of people with disabilities to receive treatment in nursing homes and mental health institutions. Olmstead feared releasing patients would jeopardize their/our receiving the proper care.

When I first heard that the Olmstead vs. LC/EW case was going to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, I was a senior at Mercer University in Macon getting my degree in social work and leader of the local ADAPT advocacy group based out of Disability Connections, a middle Georgia Center of Independent Living. Bart Floyd brought it to my attention that Tommy Olmstead was a resident of Macon and lived not far from where we held our meetings. That was when we schemed doing an action at his house and confronting him face to face with the media following.

It had been a month since we as MaconADAPT went up to join the Atlanta posse for a rally at 2 Peachtree- where the DMA building was, to try and get Tommy Olmstead in a meeting for dialogue about long term care in Georgia. Of course he was too busy to address us peons of society, being important has its prejudices. In fact, he had been too busy to even answer the calls I'd been making to him everyday for the then past 2 weeks since I found out he lived in Macon. I knew he wouldn't call. He thinks no one knows about what he's doing and saying, that this petition would go unnoticed, but ADAPT knew and we were here to let him know we knew.

30 strong we met the media, both local stations WMAZ 13 and FOX 24 at a nearby Dairy Queen and then converged on Tommy's Stonycreek residence armed with fluorescent signs inked in slogans of equality and civil rights for people with disabilities. We found lone car and silence as welcome to our campaign. So we lined up in front of his quiet neighborhood house, covered the street in protest, and stopped traffic while I interviewed with the media letting them know about Olmstead vs. LC/EW and Georgia's bias stance on long term care. We then decorated his mailbox and yard with signs and logo to mark our presence for his later arrival. Macon like Tommy's neighbors found out where he stood as a man on issues concerning the institutionalization of human beings based solely on disability. Macon also learned where ADAPT stood as a grass roots organization fighting for the civil rights of the elderly and disabled populations. Tommy was fired as head of the Department of Human Resources a week later.

By the time the case was first argued in the Supreme Court in April of 1999, more than half the states originally lined up to back Georgia, under growing political pressure to support the concept of maximizing community placement, dropped off leaving only seven states: Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. Mark Johnson, advocacy coordinator for the Shepherd Center in Atlanta said, "To people with disabilities, this case is as significant as Brown vs. Board of Education was to people of color. When the ADA was passed, it was a mandate for integration. Now we've got our state challenging our right to integration." Olmstead vs. LC/EW began as a civil rights case for two women who desired life in the community and ended up being a case representing the rights of all people and symbolic of the many decades of legal government segregation and civil rights abuse.

Advocates found that State's were at the same time fining nursing homes for abuse and neglect while giving them bonus for keeping the cost per resident per capita down. This caused an outcry from advocates across the Nation, who through acts of civil disobedience and loud protest drew battle lines with States to decide long term care placement. Involved with the Department of Medical Assistance's Long Term Care Advisory Board at the time, I gave many speeches in the Public Outreach Forums the DMA put on every year to assess the needs of people with disabilities. Since incurring my own disability I had noticed a cycle of misrepresentation that condemned people like myself to nursing home placement. In these forums I declared on several occasions, "It is not a lack of money that is the central issue when it comes to long term care but whether state's and corporations have the right to profit at the expense of the people."