The Olmstead effect: Celebrating 25 years of positive change


Photograph of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson.
Photograph of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson.

Twenty-five years ago this month, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling ushered in an era of profound and positive change for people with disabilities in America—as well as the agencies that serve and support them, including the department.

The case was Olmstead v. L.C., and the plaintiffs were two disabled women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Even though Curtis and Wilson desired to reside and receive care in a community-based setting and were declared able to do so by doctors, they were both confined to a state-run hospital for several years. Their attorney argued that such unjust institutionalization amounted to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the nation’s highest court agreed.

In the years since it was handed down, the Olmstead ruling has had a resounding ripple effect, setting in motion policy innovations across numerous federal agencies. This month, in honor of Olmstead’s 25th anniversary, our National Center on Leadership for the Employment and Economic Advancement of People with Disabilities (LEAD Center) published a retrospective of the 25 most impactful developments in disability rights and protections since the decision.

Olmstead affirmed that people with disabilities have the right to receive publicly funded services in the most integrated settings possible based on the individual’s requirements. One of the most notable public services is employment services. Olmstead has served as the bedrock of one of ODEP’s major policy priorities since our inception in 2001: advancing competitive integrated employment (CIE), a key pillar of which is people with disabilities working in the community alongside people without disabilities.

Central to our efforts is the LEAD Center, which offers resources and tools to help workforce development professionals promote CIE policies, practices and outcomes. In addition, ODEP works directly with state agencies to promote state-level systems change to advance CIE through our National Expansion of Employment Opportunities Network and Advancing State Policy Integration for Recovery and Employment initiatives.

In March, ODEP unveiled a new CIE Transformation Hub, bringing together practical guidance, policy information and evidence-based practices that can assist in advancing CIE. The hub’s resources are available to everyone and, for ease of use, organized by audience: employers, people with disabilities and their families, employment service providers and state agencies.

The essence of Olmstead is the concept of self-determination—that all people, including disabled people, have the right to pave their own path, with access to assistance if needed. CIE puts this ideal into practice, and we at ODEP are proud to increase opportunities for people with disabilities to ensure their workplace success for the next 25 years and beyond.

Taryn M. Williams is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy.