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June 24, 2024

Twenty-Five Years Later, the Fight for the Promise of Olmstead Continues

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced its findings following its investigation into how Missouri, Nebraska, and Utah illegally segregated thousands of people with mental health disabilities by unnecessarily institutionalizing them. 

“I have a dream that one day I will be free,” says Angela, a woman in her late 50s, in the Missouri report released by DOJ. “Free to live on my own, free to live within my community, free to have overnight visits with my grandchildren.” (The report refers to people by first name only.)

Specifically, the DOJ found that: Missouri unnecessarily institutionalized adults with mental health disabilities in nursing facilities; Nebraska unnecessarily segregated people with mental health disabilities in assisted living and day program facilities; and Utah unnecessarily segregated adults and youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities in employment and day service settings—all actions that prevent individuals with disabilities from interacting with those without disabilities “to the fullest extent possible.” 

June 22 marked the 25th anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C. This decision has positively impacted the lives of individuals living with disabilities. Yet, as the DOJ findings illustrate, more work needs to be done.  

In Olmstead, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people with disabilities have the right to live and receive services in the community under the integration mandate of Title II the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act when the following three conditions are met: 

  1. “the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate,
  2. the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and
  3. the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”

Courts have since determined that Olmstead applies not only to people in residential settings, but also in other contexts, such as in employment and education. People living in the community who are “at risk” of institutionalization are also covered by the ADA and Olmstead.

The DOJ report describes several alternatives to institutions, including assertive community treatment, permanent supportive housing, and peer support services, among others.

Alison Barkoff, who is performing the duties of Administration for Community Living (ACL) Administrator and Assistant Secretary for Aging, responded to the news: 

“The Olmstead decision was a huge victory for disability rights, and with it, we have made community living the expectation, rather than the exception. But 25 years later, there are still many people living in institutions because they cannot get the services and supports they need to exercise their right to community living, as illustrated by the Justice Department’s findings in these cases. From the first day of the Biden-Harris administration, we have been working across the federal government and in partnership with the disability community to change that. Through new investments and policy changes to expand access to home and community-based services, long-awaited updates to regulations implementing section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and other disability rights law, and robust enforcement actions, we are building the infrastructure needed to make the promise of Olmstead is a reality for everyone.”

The Commission on Disability Rights’ Chair, Robert Dinerstein, also responded, adding, “As significant as the Olmstead decision was when the Supreme Court decided it 25 years ago, its true legacy depends on how the federal government, advocates, and people with disabilities enforce it. Over the years, the above groups have acted aggressively to apply the case’s holding to entire state institutional systems and to other important areas of life. Compliance is not perfect, and there is clearly more work to be done, but we look forward to seeing the fruits of the ongoing efforts to make the dream of Olmstead a reality for all.”

For more information about the findings in the Olmstead decision, refer to the DOJ’s statement and technical assistance guide on the ADA’s Integration Mandate and the Olmstead decision.  

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