Woman Who Won Landmark Supreme Court Case for the Disabled Dead at 55

by Xara Aziz

A woman who served as a critical force behind legislation for the disabled died last week, according to the New York Times. She was 55.

Lois Curtis was the lead plaintiff in Olmstead v. L.C., a watershed case in which the Supreme Court ruled that “warehousing people with developmental disabilities in deficient mental institutions, when they are capable of being integrated into community settings in group homes or host homes, constituted discrimination under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.”

Growing up, Ms. Curtis was transferred from one mental institution to the next because of her cognitive and developmental disabilities, which made it hard for her family to care for her. She would eventually disappear and would land in jail or another psychiatric hospital, where she would sometimes be kept sedated. For almost 20 years, she would be confined to mental institutions and prayed that one day she could live a normal life.

“I prayed to God. I cried at night so I prayed to God every night in my bed,” she recounted in an interview for the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration.

Years later, her appearance in the Supreme Court case changed the course of hundreds of thousands disabled people in the United States. “What has changed as a result of the decision? Everything,” Susan Walker Goico, director of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Disability Integration Project, told the New York Times.

“The way states provide disability services has completely transformed from a mostly institutional model to one that is much more community-based,” she added.

Ms. Curtis died in her home of Clarkston, Georgia on November 3 of pancreatic cancer, her aunt Shirley Traylor said.

In an interview, she was asked to write what she would say to people who lived in institutions like the ones she grew up in. Her response was nothing short of heartwarming.

“Hello to all the people living in institutions, I remember you,” Ms. Curtis wrote. “Give me a prayer. Sometimes I feel good about my life. When I feel bad about my life I name my country, sing the gospel and bring my mind back home. I will sing with you again. Have a beautiful day. Love, Lois.”

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