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Georgia's Lois Curtis, whose Supreme Court case secured disability rights, dies at 55

Curtis died of pancreatic cancer in Clarkston.
Credit: AP
Lois Curtis addresses an observance held at the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn., to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that qualified patients have the right to receive community-based care rather than to be institutionalized. Curtis was one of two plaintiffs in the suit. (AP Photo/Bob Child)

CLARKSTON, Ga. — The woman known as the "godmother of the disability rights movement in Georgia" and one of the plaintiffs in a landmark civil rights Supreme Court case has died.

Georgia Council of Developmental Disabilities announced Thursday that artist Lois Curtis, of Clarkston, passed away last week. Curtis died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 3 at age 55, according to the council.

Curtis was named one of the plaintiffs along with Elaine Wilson in the 1999 Olmstead vs. L.C. Decision

Curtis and Wilson had developmental disabilities and were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit in the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. After receiving medical treatment, medical professionals deemed each was ready to move to a community-based program, according to ADA.gov. However, they were never moved and spent several years in the hospital after their initial treatment concluded.

"She fought for the freedom to live independently. When she was a young woman, she reached out to an attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid repeatedly to have her voice heard," a news release from GCCD said.

The Supreme Court upheld that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities constitutes discrimination and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ruth Bader Ginsberg delivered the decision in 1999.

The decision helped spark policy change, with Curtis paving the way for people with mental, developmental and intellectual disabilities to leave institutional settings and live within their communities. It also upheld that public entities must provide community-based services to such individuals under federally determined circumstances.

"People often say that the Olmstead decision is the Brown vs Board of Education for the disability community because it opened doors for people to live in their communities, to have freedom, and to work. Advocacy was her life. She was amazing," Lee Sanders said. Sanders, a career specialist at Briggs and Associates, had worked with Curtis and had known her since 2005.

A viewing will be held for Curtis Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Donald Trumble Funeral Home in Decatur. Her funeral will be at noon on Saturday. 

She will be laid to rest at the South View civil rights cemetery in Atlanta. 

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