Olmstead v. L.C. is the Supreme Court case that provided what is now known as the Olmstead decision. In 1999, Lois Curtis—the L.C. in Olmstead v. L.C.—and Elaine Wilson, two women with disabilities living in Georgia institutions, successfully argued in the Supreme Court that housing people with disabilities in segregated settings who are capable of living in the community constitutes discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Curtis, who was diagnosed with both an intellectual disability and mental illness at a young age, passed away on November 3, 2022, from pancreatic cancer. She was 55. She spent nearly half her life living in institutions. She was a well-known artist. Throughout her life and her involvement in advocacy, Curtis’ life impacted many, and her fight to live her life freely in the community changed the lives for hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities throughout the country.
Susan Walker Goico, Director of the Disability Integration Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, knew Curtis through Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s work to support Lois. She reflected, “When Lois met Atlanta Legal Aid lawyer, Sue Jamieson, at Georgia Regional Hospital, she made a clear request: ‘Get me out of here.’ At that time, neither Lois nor Sue knew that together (along with Elaine Wilson, the other plaintiff in the Olmstead case) they would change the landscape of disability law in this country.”
Talley Wells, now the Executive Director at the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities (NCCDD), advocated for Curtis during her time as Director of the Disability Integration Project at Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
“At the 15th anniversary of Olmstead at the Carter Center, we gave Lois an opportunity to speak, but more importantly we gave her a space and an opportunity to do her art. Too often, we ask people to use words to explain the impact of the Olmstead decision. It is the Brown v. Board of Education decision for people with disabilities. It is about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it is about ending segregation and discrimination of people with disabilities,” said Wells. “But mostly it is about ensuring that every person with a disability has the right and necessary support to fully live in the community. For Lois, living meant the right to smoke her cigarettes, do her art and get paid for it, and live in her own home surrounded by her community. That day, on the 15th anniversary, we had a lot of great speakers, but nothing spoke more eloquently of the meaning of Olmstead than what Lois drew as her art that day.”
Cheri Mitchell, an advocate with the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), remembered Curtis’ dedication to the people who were still stuck in institutions after she got out.
“Lois didn’t forget about people who were still stuck in institutions after she got out. She showed up at every Long Road Home event at the Georgia Capitol to raise awareness and to advocate for freedom,” Mitchell said. “When asked what she would say to people in institutions, she would say: ‘Hello to all the people living in institutions, I remember you. 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.’”
Gillian Grable, a Community Outreach Coordinator at the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD) at the University of Georgia, first met Curtis when she was a teenager living in an institution. Grable was dedicated to making Curtis’ dreams of freedom her reality. She shared a poem she wrote about Lois’ fight to be heard.
“It is 2:00 A.M. I wake with a voice that demands to be heard,” writes Grable.
“In 1994. We are sitting in a Chinese restaurant with a group of people we have gathered for Lois’ futures planning. After we read the menu, Lois orders shrimp chow mein. A member of the group says, ‘I didn’t know she liked shrimp.’ I respond, ‘Lois never had the chance to order shrimp before today.’”
Grable’s reflection continues as she looks toward the future and all the other people fighting to have their voices heard too.
“Lois’ birthday is the same day as Bastille Day. A national holiday in France, this date commemorates the fall of the Bastille, a prison in Paris, 210 years ago. Since Lois was thirteen years old, she has lived over half of her life in places segregated by disability. We were led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by Lois’ insistent voice that she be heard. It is now 4:00 A.M. Who is listening to all the other voices?”
Lois Curtis’ legacy is an inspiration and a rallying cry as advocates continue to fight for the rights of all people with disabilities to live their lives freely on their own terms. Her life, her art, and what she stood for will never be forgotten.