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Honoring a Life of Impact

A smiling Black woman with short hair holds a sign reading 'I am Olmstead.' Paintings covers the walls behind her.

Last night, the world lost a guiding light of the disability rights movement, Lois Curtis, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 55. 

Ms. Curtis was the “L.C.” in Olmstead vs. L.C., the landmark Supreme Court case commonly referred to as the “Olmstead decision.” The Olmstead decision was a watershed moment in disability rights history, affirming that people with disabilities, including the most significant disabilities, have the right to live and receive services in their communities, in the most integrated settings possible. It originated with a lawsuit brought by Ms. Curtis and another plaintiff, Elaine Wilson, against the state of Georgia. 

By bringing her experience to light through legal action, Ms. Curtis helped set the stage for a new era of inclusion in America. She also laid the foundation for a significant component of our work in the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), where we believe that all workers should have equal opportunity to set their own goals for employment, and, if needed, access to services to achieve them. This belief informs our significant work to advance competitive integrated employment (CIE). It is about equity and the very essence of Olmstead. Lois Curtis stands next to Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The president is holding a painting.

As a testament to the power of these principles, Ms. Curtis, once released from unjust institutionalization, established and ran her own art business, working with a job coach to succeed. In fact, in honor of the 12th anniversary of Olmstead in 2011, she presented one of her paintings to President Obama in the Oval Office

Ms. Curtis’s life was one of extraordinary impact, and today, we mourn her passing and send our condolences to her family and many friends across the nation and world. But tomorrow, we get back to work honoring her legacy—by helping ensure future generations of people with disabilities can live, work and fully participate in our communities. 

 

Taryn M. Williams is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.

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