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Part Three: Olmstead 15 Years Later: A Behind-the-Scenes Account from Olmstead Pioneer Jonathan Zimring

Part Three of a Three-Part Series

by Jonathan Zimring & Michael Morris


June 22, 2014 marked the 15th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Olmstead v. L.C. case, which required states to eliminate the segregation of people with disabilities and ensure people with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

The LEAD Center’s Policy Team Lead Michael Morris, who is Executive Director of National Disability Institute, was honored to speak with Jonathan Zimring, an Atlanta, Ga. based civil rights and education attorney for people with disabilities and their families who served as the court-appointed guardian (guardian ad litem) in the case. 

In the final installment in this three-part series, Zimring, and Morris discuss the future of Olmstead and what remains to be done to fulfill its promise.

Previous posts in the series:

  • Part one highlights the history of the case, the people involved and how and why it was brought to trial
  • Part two shares the impact of the Olmstead decision on the two women who brought the case and on people with disabilities nationwide.

Michael Morris (MM):  As we mark the 15th anniversary of the Olmstead decision, and you have been a part of many of the legal frontiers related to community inclusion and civil rights for people with disabilities, what is the next legal frontier? No one has a crystal ball but, if you were to look ahead over the next 10 years, where do you see the legal battles continuing?

Jonathan Zimring (JZ): Well, putting aside the lack of resources and the crisis over Medicaid and waivers as a funding source, which you can’t put aside realistically or functionally, I think there’s really a couple of things. I mostly practice special ed (education) law now. We represent a lot of kids. You lose the forest for the trees in the whole idea of 504 (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as it related to the education by school districts of students with disabilities) and the ADA to the extent they apply. You forget you are dealing with civil rights and you are arguing over the minutia of the statute, which is important, of course, to obtain resources. I think that momentum, that strength of being right, has been lost or abdicated. So, my view of that is in the special ed world of parents, advocates, [and] attorneys, we recognize that those are civil rights we are talking about; those are the bridges to the benefits that those laws have held out since 1974 essentially. I think people don’t look at…children adequately in that world. And, of course, transition services into the community, and the bridge to…gainful employment and respectful employment are not implemented in the special ed laws and are ignored in many places, generally. I don’t know have a Northeast or California experience, I have a deep South experience and they are ignored here and are ignored in many places that we see or hear about. That’s really a battle. We can’t send kids through instruction and then wonder what happens to them on their 22nd birthday.  The law is not intended to do that, and it is one of the least enforced provisions of transition services…. That is why I was so pleased to see the Justice Department and others enforce integration requirements in this whole line of social services.

MM: Do you expect that the Olmstead decision will ever come closer to, what I think is the fundamental problem – talking about community inclusion and the level of poverty in which people with disabilities live. All the efforts that try to build supports to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities have spent very little time on issues that affect low-income people, which are issues of minimum wage, livable wages and being a part of the economic mainstream. A segment of the American with Disabilities Act, in the findings statement,  notes that our nation’s proper goals are to protect or promote independent living and goes on to actually use the words advance economic self-sufficiency. It seems like we haven’t moved very far in that arena. I just wonder from your perspective, and I would agree that the issues start with youth in transition, is it plausible that there is yet a focus beyond employment and independent living to actually focus in on our nation’s goals related to advancing economic self-sufficiency?   

JZ: Well, it is certainly plausible because of how necessary that is. There are some tools, as you all are working with, to try and make it happen. And, of course, there is the ultimate question of teaching, instructing or training people to do what? That needs to start under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in the schools, and that is something they really do not want to do -- because it is something they feel like they do (already). There is no common core curriculum for a 21 year old to have the skills to be economically competitive. There are brilliant people across the country who have established how to do that and what to teach and what you need to look at. We are not doing that and that is wrong.

MM: In closing, I think for most of us who have been a part of the disability community, Olmstead is a unique moment in history where the court at the highest level redefined, as you said, discrimination and protection against discrimination for a wide spectrum of people with disabilities. And it created a mandate, because of the activism of the Justice Department from this Administration, that has really given people – families raising children with disabilities, adults working age with disabilities and older people – a sense of hope and optimism that, in their battle every day, they are not alone. You and a small group of folks in Georgia delivered that for the rest of the nation. Do you think about how great a gift that is and how many people owe you and the attorneys involved such a debt of gratitude for finding a path that used law and all the tools of advocacy to change what this country looks like?

JZ: No, I never think about that at all…because I don’t look at the world that way. I started walking the halls of institutions in ’73 … and saw the staff using a 15-volt cattle prod to line up kids to move them from room to room. I told my children, who are adults now, (about) that and they look at you like that’s strange, (and) no, that couldn’t have happened. It was always about freedom to me, inherent independence and people’s right to make a judgment about their own lives, regardless of how someone else views that judgment or their capacity for that judgment. Where it is going now is a natural part of that. I don’t think any of us did it for really any other reasons. Sue just wanted to get these ladies out of the hospital and to where they needed to be so that they could have a life.  And, that, at its purist, is what spawned this; we all sat down and came up with a way to make it happen.

The simplicity of Olmstead is what I said before. Justice Ginsberg said the integration mandate is the definition of discrimination. That applies everywhere. If we put it in the context of people who aren’t disabled, it’s clearer. If we put it in the context of situations of people who have different type of disabilities, we accept them more readily than others and integrate them more effectively than others. But the truth of it is, there really is no reason why we’re not a fully integrated society up and down the line. I think what we need to understand is that creating services for people with disabilities has to now take that into recognition because it’s not fulfilling the obligation or the science.

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