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  • Writer's pictureTroyer & Good, PC

Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Impact on Disability Rights

With her recent passing, many people are looking back at all the accomplishments of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature," Chief Justice John Roberts said. "We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice" (NPR).

As a feminist icon, Ginsburg will be well-remembered for championing women's rights and gender equality. Beyond that, Ginsburg also stood up for the rights of people with disabilities. One of the most important contributions she made to the rights of people with disabilities was the majority opinion she wrote in the 1999 ruling of Olmstead v. L.C. This landmark case affirmed that people with disabilities have the right to live in the community.

The case involved Lois and Elaine, two women with mental illness and developmental disabilities. They had been residing at a state hospital and were medically cleared to move to a community-based setting. However, despite being cleared to move, the two women remained in the hospital for years.

The high court decided that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a state must move a person with a disability to a community setting if (1) treatment professionals determine such a move is appropriate, (2) the individual does not oppose the move, and (3) the movement can be "reasonably accommodated."

According to Ginsburg, this ruling "reflects two evident judgments." Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion:

  1. "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."

  2. "Confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement and cultural enrichment."

“This big moment, and (Ginsburg’s) staunch affirmation of the human dignity of people with disabilities and their rightful place in the community of their choice, fundamentally changed the course of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Ginsburg challenged the expectations of how services should be provided to people with disabilities.

“Justice Ginsburg cemented the right of people to live within the community, rather than in institutions,” said Barbara Merrill, CEO of the American Network of Community Options and Resources, or ANCOR, a national trade group representing disability service providers. “Her work gave power to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and she will forever be remembered as a champion of the rights of millions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”


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