Celebrating the Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her Impact on Disability Rights

When many think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s accomplishments, they think of her role as a pioneer in the women’s rights movement. However, during her 27 years on the court, she was also a supporter of sex equity in schools, expansive desegregation remedies, and strict separation of church and state.

For those of us in the disability community, we think first of her majority opinion in the landmark 1999 ruling in Olmstead v L.C, which affirmed the right of people with disabilities to live in the community. In this decision, the high court determined that under the American with Disabilities Act, states must move people with disabilities to the community if treatment professionals determine that such a placement is appropriate, if the individual supports the move, and if the placement can be reasonably accommodated. She wrote: “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.” She further stated: “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.” With this ruling, the doors of the institutions opened and people with disabilities were to be served in the community.

Pennsylvania and the Barber National Institute were leaders in the United States in bringing people back from the institutions. Our first group home was established in 1973. However, this was not true in many states. Therefore, this ruling became a major force in expanding states’ initiative and funding for group homes. Thousands of persons with disabilities across the United States are beneficiaries of her judgment and leadership.

We celebrate her life today, yet mourn her passing. May she rest in peace.

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