By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
As we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I think of the many people whose lives have been transformed by the law and its mandate of non-discrimination. Perhaps none exemplifies the power of this legislation more than artist Lois Curtis, who spent decades of her life in an institution before suing the state of Georgia under the Act, made possible by leading champions in the U.S. Senate and House, including Senators Harkin, Weicker, and Dole and Representatives Hoyer and Coelho.
When I visited Lois in her lovely home in a suburban street outside of Atlanta, I was struck by how different her life was in this community. She had a home, friends and a business selling her art. My family and I were at her home in December 2013 right before I started my current position at NAMI so that I could purchase several paintings for my office. As we left, my daughter asked me, "Why did she have to live in an institution for so long?"
"The Women of Olmstead" by Lois Curtis. Photo: Tracy Coffin
The answer lies in discrimination and the lack of priority that was placed on recovery for people with mental illness. While we still have a long way to go to achieve true equality for people with mental health conditions, the ADA codified what we had known all along—such discrimination is wrong.
In my career as a civil rights litigator, I also challenged discriminatory employment practices that failed to accommodate mental illnesses, unfair limits in insurance products, and warehousing people with mental illness is substandard housing. While I didn't win every case, the ADA provided and still provides a way to raise public awareness and redress the unfair treatment that has historically been imposed on people with mental illnesses in voting, employment, housing, access to mental and physical healthcare, and many other areas.
Today, we know that the war is not won and we have more work to do to make the promise of equality in the ADA a reality. Discrimination persists in areas such as the high unemployment rate, lack of access to treatment, early mortality, and inhumane institutionalization of people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons.
So we take a moment to commemorate and celebrate this monumental civil rights victory of the ADAs passage 25 years ago and rededicate ourselves to implementing its vision of equality and justice. If we are successful, many others like Lois can realize their dreams and contribute their talents and gifts to our communities.
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