RBG and the Disability Community

On September 18, 2020, our nation lost an incredible leader – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, and after Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006, Justice Ginsburg’s profile began to rise even more, eventually becoming a pop culture icon. While she is known for being a fierce advocate for women’s rights, you may not know of the important contributions she has made to Disability Rights. As an attorney and as a proud disabled woman, there are two Supreme Court decisions that Justice Ginsburg contributed to that are monumental to the Disability Community, and that I will never forget: her majority opinion in Olmstead v. L.C. and her concurring opinion in Tennessee v. Lane

In 1999, Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in Olmstead v. L.C., the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled that unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities is discrimination and that states must eliminate this practice, and instead ensure that people with disabilities can get support and services in the most integrated setting. In this case, two women with disabilities in Georgia were forced to live in an institution even though their doctors believed they could live in the community with appropriate services, and the state of Georgia had programs that provided community based services. 

Justice Ginsburg wrote: “Recognition that unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination reflects two evident judgments. First, 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… Second, 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.”

These words were monumental and have set in motion countless community based services and supports throughout our nation today. This Supreme Court decision, authored by Justice Ginsburg, is the reason so many people with disabilities today are able to live in their own homes in the community, instead of in nursing homes or group homes or other institutional settings! We continue to use this decision to fight for more attendant services, more accessible housing, and more services and support throughout the country today!

Later, in 2004, Justice Ginsburg wrote a powerful concurring opinion in Tennessee v. Lane. This case involved two wheelchair users in Tennessee who could not access the courthouse because the courtrooms were on the upper floors without an elevator. One of the wheelchair users was a court reporter who lost work because she could not access the courtrooms. The other wheelchair user was required to appear in court for criminal charges and for his first appearance, he crawled up two flights of steps to get to the courtroom. However, for his second appearance, he refused to crawl up the steps again and refused to be carried, so he was arrested for failure to appear in court. The wheelchair users sued the State of Tennessee for their failure to ensure the courts were accessible, but the State of Tennessee claimed that citizens did not have the right to sue states under the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress did have the power to allow citizens to sue states under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

In her concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote: “Including individuals with disabilities among people who count in composing “We the People,” Congress understood in shaping the ADA, would sometimes require not blindfolded equality, but responsiveness to difference; not indifference, but accommodation.”

This quote is powerful because she recognizes that equality is not always about treating people exactly the same, but rather, to achieve equality, sometimes we must treat people differently by accommodating our differences. For example, in Tennessee v. Lane, everyone had access to the same stairs in the courthouse, but not everyone could use the stairs. It’s not enough to just have stairs – we must accommodate difference by also having an elevator. 

This is the first time a Supreme Court Justice recognized that equal protection can be achieved by treating people differently rather than treating everyone exactly the same. This is very important, not just for people with disabilities, but for many marginalized people. 

I am so thankful for Justice Ginsburg’s words and wisdom. She has helped to create a more just world for us. May we continue to create an even better world together. 

About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.