Expert Update: How Olmstead Settlements Are Focusing on Quality Services

In America, the phrase "Civil Rights" evokes powerful emotion, conjuring up visions of the 1960s, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and of students at lunch counters and university doors.

These were the disability community's models for civil rights advocacy. This year, we celebrate landmark anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Brown v. Board of Education and Olmstead v. LC. These legal landmarks, together, show that disability rights are an essential part of the civil rights movement and that separate is not equal – for any group of people.

In Georgia, the home of the Olmstead decision, the State and the Department of Justice are concluding the fourth year of a multi-year Agreement to transform the state's service system for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health disabilities. We are working together to fulfill the promise of these legal landmarks for citizens with disabilities.

The Olmstead case has rightly been called the Brown v. Board of Education of the disability rights movement. Olmstead marked the first time the Supreme Court formally recognized that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Court recognized that unwarranted "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."

At the Department of Justice, we believe the ability to be part of your community is the right from which all other rights flow.

Since 2009, the Department of Justice has participated in approximately 44 Olmstead matters in 24 states. Georgia is one of eight states to reach Olmstead settlements with the Department that are directly affecting over 46,000 people with intellectual, developmental, mental health and physical disabilities. Nothing in the ADA or the integration mandate is limited to residential settings. Olmstead points to a variety of everyday life activities that are harmed by unnecessary segregation. The Department has expanded its Olmstead work to look beyond just where people live to examine how people live. Simply moving someone from an institution to a community-based residence does not achieve community integration if that person is still denied meaningful integrated ways to spend their days and is denied the opportunity to do what we all do – work in the community.

Olmstead means that people with disabilities have a right to receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate for them. Our settlements don't focus on closing institutions (although to date, 17 states across the nation have closed all of their large state-run ICFs). Our settlements focus on making sure quality services are available in people's communities – so people have viable options to receive services without submitting to unnecessary segregation.

Our Olmstead work depends on the work of local advocates – people with disabilities, parents, service providers, advocates and others – who let their policymakers know they want to live in their communities – who let us know where this civil right is being systemically violated – and who support people as they make their way into the community. Policymakers on every level of government have become partners in the transformation of systems that for too long perpetuated unnecessary institutionalization.

For so long people with disabilities have been marginalized and discounted, and assumed to be incapable of contributing meaningfully. Public and private services were designed within this mindset. Those attitudes have shifted, and people are telling us how their lives have changed for the better as a result. But much work remains. We have no illusions about the significance of the challenges ahead. But we will make progress, working together, toward fully enforcing the civil rights of all of our citizens.

by Eve Hill
Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.

Tags: Making a Difference, Expert Update