Lois Curtis, artist and disability rights advocate, dies at 55

Confined to hospitals and psychiatric institutions against her will, Lois Curtis regularly called for help, dialing the number of a compassionate lawyer who distributed her business card to social workers and people with disabilities. “When can I get out of here?” she would ask. “Would you please get me out of here?”

Ms Curtis had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and developmental disabilities as a young woman and by her late twenties had spent more than half her life in public institutions. Isolated and angry, she chain-smoked to pass the time and prayed to God at night, asking to be rescued from Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta.

Her fight to get home led her to Sue Jamieson, an Atlanta Legal Aid lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ms Curtis and one of Ms Curtis’ friends, Elaine Wilson. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where in 1999 the justices handed down a landmark decision that gave people with disabilities the right to receive care and support services in their own homes and communities, and not only in public institutions.

The case was called Olmstead v. LC— Ms Curtis was the ‘LC’ – and galvanized the disability rights movement, providing a legal framework for people with disabilities to secure the right to live, work and study in their own communities. Some lawyers have described it as the movement of Brown v. Board of Educationcomparing it to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools.

“He created and enshrined a right to live and participate fully in his own community. It really is the centerpiece of what disability law is all about,” said Alison Barkoff, senior federal official responsible for aging and disability policy. The Olmstead decision “has led to a radical change in the appearance of public service systems”, she added in a telephone interview, noting that while most public services for people with disabilities were previously provided in institutions, “the vast majority of services” are now “provided to people in their own homes and in their own communities.

The court case also marked the start of a joyful new era for Ms Curtis, who moved into her own home as the trial progressed through the legal system. Aided by a dedicated network of friends and caregivers, she lived independently while pursuing her calling as an artist, using pastels, acrylics, markers and crayons to draw images of people and animals that were sold at auction and exhibited in galleries.

“My art has been around for a long time,” she once told Jamieson, explaining what drawing meant to her. “I came when my art arrived. Drawing pretty pictures is a way to meet God in the world as he is.

Ms Curtis was 55 when she died on November 3 At her place in Clarkston, Ga. The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her friend Lee Sanders, who helped Ms. Curtis find work and sell some of her paintings.

Through her legal advocacy and her appearances at disability rights conferences, Ms. Curtis has become a nationally recognized personality, widely admired for her relentless optimism and tenacity. “Lois demanded dignity when every system and politics in her life told her she didn’t deserve it,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the Americans with Disabilities Association.

Mrs. Curtis was 27 when the Olmstead A lawsuit was filed in 1995, challenging the decision of Tommy Olmstead, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, to keep Ms. Curtis in mental isolation. (Wilson, the co-plaintiff, was added to the case later.) Hospital staff had determined she could live in a community living facility with supportive care, but she was stuck on a waiting list, with state officials saying they didn’t have enough resources to get her out of a facility.

The Supreme Court ultimately sided with Ms Curtis, ruling 6 to 3 that the unwarranted segregation of people with disabilities constituted discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. People with intellectual disabilities had the right to receive community care, the court heard. , as long as they were medically cleared to do so, had expressed a desire to return to their communities and could be “reasonably accommodated” by the state.

The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noted that institutional confinement “significantly diminishes individuals’ activities of daily living, including family relationships, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement and cultural enrichment”.

Over the next two decades, other court cases extended the scope of the Olmstead decision, which applied not only to psychiatric hospitals, but also to nursing homes and other institutions receiving state and federal funding. Advocates used the decision to fight for the right of people with disabilities to learn in the same classroom as other students and to work in the same workplace as other employees.

Yet advocates say many people with disabilities still struggle to get the rights and services Ms Curtis fought for. According to Barkoff, acting head of the Community Life Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services, “an estimated 800,000 seniors and people with disabilities are on waiting lists for community services,” many of whom are at risk. to be institutionalized.

Ms. Curtis had a message for those trying, as she once did, to return to their communities. “I remember you,” she wrote in a short 2010 letter shared by her friend Sanders. “Give me a prayer. Sometimes I feel good about my life. When I feel down in my life, I name my country, sing the gospel, and bring my spirit home.

“I will sing with you again.

Lois Jeanette Curtis was born in Atlanta on July 14, 1967. She never knew her father, a truck driver, and was raised by her mother, a housekeeper who struggled with alcoholism, according to a 2000 article. of the Atlanta Constitution. Ms Curtis often wandered away from home as a child, leading her mother to call 911 to help find her eldest daughter. When she was located, she was often sent to public institutions.

After being released and starting to live in an apartment as an adult, she traveled to Washington with her lawyers, climbing the steps of the Supreme Court to follow the progress of her case.

“Lawyers were focused on the frightening possibility that the Court would reverse successful lower court decisions and the exciting possibility that it might not,” Jamieson recalled in a blog post for the White House website. Barack Obama. “Lois, however, tends to take things head on and understands the joy of the moment. Since she wasn’t in a state hospital but was enjoying a trip to DC with her friends and followers, she focused on this day of freedom and adventure.

Ms. Curtis hoped she could see the president himself. She had to wait 12 years, but in 2011 she visited Barack Obama at the White House and presented him with one of her self-portraits, a drawing called “Girl in Orange Dress”.

“She created works of art as she lived,” her friend Sanders wrote in a tribute on Facebook, praising “her unabashedly drawn lines, bold, saturated colors, simple, spirited imagery.”

Ms Curtis’ co-applicant Wilson died in 2004 aged 53. Survivors include two sisters.

In a 2014 interview for Impact, a University of Minnesota magazine on disability issues, Ms Curtis described some of the daily routines and delights of her life at home, including making breakfast, taking classes art, draw pictures and go to church.

“I raise my voice high! she says. “In the summer, I go to the swimming pool and I put my feet in the water. Maybe I’ll learn to swim one day. I have sinned. I saw a pig and a horse on a farm. I buy clothes and shoes. I have birthday parties. They have a lot of fun. I am no longer afraid of big dogs.

“I feel good about myself,” she continued, thinking back to the decades she’d spent in institutions. “My life a better life.”

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