Best known for standing up for women’s rights, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also played an outsized role in ensuring the rights of people with disabilities, advocates say.
Most notably, Ginsburg, who died September 18 at the age of 87, wrote the majority opinion in the landmark 1999 ruling in Olmstead v. L.C. The decision affirmed the right of people with disabilities to live in the community. “This big moment, and (Ginsburg’s) staunch affirmation of the human dignity of people with disabilities and their rightful place in the community of their choice, fundamentally changed the course of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.
The case centered on Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with mental illness and developmental disabilities who remained at a Georgia state hospital for years even after they were medically cleared to move to community-based settings. In the decision, the high court determined that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, states must move people with disabilities to community settings if treatment professionals determine that such a placement is appropriate, if the individual does not oppose such a move and if the placement can be “reasonably accommodated.”
Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that the decision “reflects two evident judgments.” First, “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,” Ginsburg wrote. “Second, 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.”
With the ruling, Ginsburg transformed expectations for how services for people with disabilities across the nation should be provided, advocates said.