Often lost in the day to day of life are the big moments in history that make today possible. Today, a life in the community for millions of people with disabilities is possible because of the actions of those who came before them, that led to justice. We mourn the loss of one of those champions, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the opinion in the landmark ruling affirming that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is discrimination.
“Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act transformed the country in important ways, changing expectations for the lives of people with disabilities. Thanks to the work of countless committed advocates, we have taken meaningful steps toward the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Two advocates that carried the promise of the law all the way to the Supreme Court were Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Their bravery and refusal to live behind the dark walls of institutions led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead v. L.C. decision in 1999. The case established that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act – and that people with disabilities have a right to live in the community rather than institutions.
“In the opinion, Justice Ginsburg focused on the fact that ‘institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life.’
“This big moment, and her 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. With this history in our hearts, we will carry on our fight for inclusion and justice for all people with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.
From Ginsburg's concurrence in Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004) (h/t Robyn Powell)
Including individuals with disabilities among people who count in composing “We the People,” Congress understood in shaping the ADA, would sometimes require not blindfolded equality, but responsiveness to difference; not indifference, but accommodation. Central to the Act’s primary objective, Congress extended the statute’s range to reach all government activities, §12132 (Title II), and required “reasonable modifications to [public actors’] rules, policies, or practices,” §§12131(2)–12132 (Title II). See also §12112(b)(5) (defining discrimination to include the failure to provide “reasonable accommodations”) (Title I); §12182(b)(2)(A)(ii) (requiring “reasonable modifications in [public accommodations’] policies, practices, or procedures”) (Title III); Bagenstos, supra, at 435 (ADA supporters sought “to eliminate the practices that combine with physical and mental conditions to create what we call ‘disability.’ The society-wide universal access rules serve this function on the macro level, and the requirements of individualized accommodation and modification fill in the gaps on the micro level.”
Apart from her legendary dissents on the Supreme Court of the United States, Ginsburg is perhaps best known for the six cases she argued before the court as director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, a position I’m privileged to hold now. In 1973, the year Ginsburg had her first argument before the high court, she and the Women’s Rights Project co-founder, Brenda Feigen, filed a federal lawsuit in North Carolina on behalf of Nial Ruth Cox, a Black woman who had been forcibly sterilized in 1965 as part of a gruesome state eugenics program targeted at people with mental disabilities.