In Honor of Black History Month – A Biography of Lois Curtis

By: Samantha Cantrall, Communication Specialist at Hammer

Lois Curtis is an African-American artist and activist who has an intellectual disability. She currently lives in her own home in Georgia, with the assistance of Home and Community Based Services.


Photo by Robin Nelson. https://bit.ly/16W0i2q

Lois enjoys working on her art, selling her paintings and drawings to make some extra money. She has even presented one of her paintings to President Obama! Lois is happy with her life and has the supports she needs to succeed in her own home as a person with an intellectual disability. Unfortunately, it has not always been this way.

Lois was one of the plaintiffs, along with Elaine Wilson, in the now famous 1999 Olmstead decision, which eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court declared that Lois, Elaine and other people with disabilities have the right to live in the community, not an institution, and be provided adequate supports for success. Her story has helped to clarify federal and state laws for thousands of people with developmental disabilities across the country.

As an adolescent, Lois struggled at home and at school. Her family could not adequately provide for her due to her disability and behavioral issues. Lois was in and out of Georgia Regional Hospital’s child and adolescent unit from the time she was eleven years old. As a patient in the hospital, she was treated as a psychiatric patient, instead of a girl with developmental disabilities.

By the time Lois was 19, she decided she wanted out of the institution. She was unhappy, and wanted to live in the community rather than behind steel doors. In the early 1990’s, Lois was placed into a personal care home, but it lacked the necessary supports she required, including trained staff. Because the state refused to provide adequate support services, and there was nowhere else for Lois to go, she returned to Georgia Regional Hospital.


In 1995, Elaine Wilson, a woman in a similar situation, and Lois sued the State of Georgia under a claim with the American Disabilities Act (ADA). They won their case, and continued to win as the state continued to appeal, all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that ‘unnecessary institutionalization’ amounted to discrimination and unjustified segregation, thus violating the plaintiffs’ civil rights.

While Elaine quickly secured a place in her community after the case, Lois found difficulty finding consistency. She was relocated from one care home to another for a variety of reasons. Eventually, Lois found a home to her liking in Stone Mountain, GA. She lives there to this day.

Today, Lois continues to be an advocate for people with disabilities, and is still called on for speaking engagements. Despite all of the positive change Lois has experienced in her lifetime, there is still work to be done. Services for developmentally disabled people are still not consistent across communities, and waiver funding can sometimes have unreasonably long wait times.

Groups like the Best Life Alliance, ARRM, and ARC are working hard to fix these problems in Minnesota. Even though the situations are still not perfect, it is self-advocates like Lois who have paved the way for people with disabilities to have the right to choices, and the ability to live their best life.


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