Feb 09

Lois Curtis — Fighting for the Right to Live in the Community

For Black History Month, we’re profiling Black leaders in the disability rights movement. Check back all month for more!

Lois Curtis is a Black disability activist and artist best known for her role as a plaintiff in the Olmstead vs L.C. Supreme Court Case establishing the right of people with disabilities to live independently.

As a young child, Curtis was diagnosed with cognitive disabilities. At the age of 11, she was sent to Georgia Regional Hospital, where she remained confined until she was 29 years old.

Curtis—whose treatment team felt she was able to live in the community, but who the state refused to financially support—was determined to live outside the walls of an institution, and sued the state of Georgia. The case, Olmstead v. L.C., made its way through the system for the next two years, reaching the United States Supreme Court in 1999.

Lois Curtis hands a painting to President Barack Obama in the Oval Office

In 2011, Curtis presented President Obama with one of her paintings.

On June 22, 1999, the Court ruled that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it was, therefore, unconstitutional for Curtis to be forced to remain in an institution when she was capable of living in the community. 

In the Court decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated:

“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.”

The Olmstead case, as it is now known, paved the way for thousands of people with disabilities to live in communities. It also required public entities to provide community-based services under certain circumstances. 

These days, Lois Curtis lives in her own home in Georgia, where she spends her time singing, writing songs, and creating art. In 2011, she presented a painting to President Barack Obama. 

Because of Lois Curtis’s long-standing commitment to freedom for all, people with disabilities are able to participate fully in community life.

Today, we honor her as a part of this year’s Black History Month. 

Information in this highlight came from The Arc, RespectAbility, and the Art of Autism