June 22 marks the 10th anniversary of an important day in civil rights history. On that day in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of two Georgia women with developmental disabilities who wanted to be supported in their community, rather than in a state-run institution.
They considered themselves imprisoned without just cause. A lower court had already ruled that Georgia was required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to serve the women in a community setting. In Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., Georgia appealed to the highest court, grasping to preserve the legitimacy of the institution over the legitimacy of civil rights. Commonly referred to as the “Olmstead Decision,” the Supreme Court upheld the ADA’s “integration mandate.” The two women subsequently moved to a home in the community, where they were supported in a dignified manner, at less than half the cost to Georgia taxpayers.
I hope 10 years later, Missourians remember and celebrate this victory for human dignity, which applies to all 50 states. I hope also Missourians seriously consider the fact that nearly 800 people with developmental disabilities in our state are segregated in state-run habilitation centers, at a cost of nearly $90 million per year. At least 2,000 more people with developmental disabilities are segregated in nursing homes. Shut out of the community, they are too often like the two Georgia women — imprisoned without just cause. Many have guardians who feel they need to be institutionalized, but today we know that people with the most severe disabilities can and should be supported in the community. The institutional model for supporting them is archaic, is not conducive to upholding human dignity, and on average is twice as expensive to taxpayers as the community support model.
The Olmstead Decision makes statutory a simple truth: that people with disabilities belong in the community with their families and friends — and with the right support it’s where they can be. Looking back through civil rights history, decisions made long ago seem so ridiculously clear now — we don’t hold, buy and sell human beings as slaves anymore. Women can vote. I can sit anywhere on a bus or drink out of any water fountain, no matter what color I am. We need to step back, take a hard look at the practice of institutionalization and realize now that future generations will see the community integration of people with disabilities as a no-brainer.
Mark Satterwhite is a member of Arc of the U.S. – Missouri Chapter, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.