Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Olmstead v. L.C. & E.W.

This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W. Once again I am completely struck by how little we learn in our educational system about disability issues. This case is the disability version of Brown v. the Board of Education. Now even though I know there is a long way to go with sensitivity towards race in our educational system, I want to note that at least when I was in college Brown v. the Board of Education was drilled into my head by my professors. Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., however, I didn’t learn about until today. Granted I was just finishing up my graduate degree in the late 90s, but you still would have thought professionally I would have heard about this. Maybe it is now being taught, but I highly doubt it because the vast majority of the time that I bring up disability rights and/or disability history with my own graduate students they seemed unaware. And if the professors were not taught that this stuff was important when they were in school, that is only going to trickle down to the current students.

Here is a little background on the case (and note that I don’t purport to be an expert since I just learned about this today). The respondents of the case were both women who had cognitive disabilities. L.C. also had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and E.W. was diagnosed with a personality disorder. Both women were voluntarily admitted into a hospital in Georgia for treatment and were then confined to a psychiatric unit. Treatment professionals eventually stated that both woman could receive appropriate treatment in the community, but the women remained institutionalized because the State of Georgia did not act on placing them in the community. The state argued that it was all about money, but the respondents indicated that this was discriminatory. The court ruled that limiting services to institution settings was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They should receive treatment in whatever may be the most appropriate and least restrictive environment.

So what has happened in the ten years since this ruling? Here are some points from two articles that were forwarded to me via email (Thanks Johanna for this information) ( and

“Nationally in 2007, more than 331,000 people were on waiting lists for community services. About two-thirds have developmental disabilities, and the rest have other disabilities or are elderly.”

“More than 140 lawsuits have been brought across the country. While many led to individuals leaving institutions, they haven't always changed state Medicaid programs.”

The status of this varies state to state. “In Tennessee, only 1 percent of Medicaid long-term funds for disabled and elderly adults went to community services in 2007. By contrast, Arizona spends 64 percent of Medicaid long-term care money on community services.”

”More than 313,000 people with disabilities in nursing homes (23% of the total) want to live in the community, and yet are denied their civil right to integration, primarily because of Medicaid's historical bias in favor of segregation.”

Steve Gold asks an important question in the second article: “What do we have to do to create the atmosphere of the 1960s for the disability civil rights struggle in 2009?” Something needs to be done related to disability rights today – part of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know what is going on, don’t want to know what is going on, and/or don’t really care. Disability rights is certainly one of the most salient multicultural concerns of today.


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