Speaking out for People with
 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

The Olmstead Decision Has Been Misinterpreted

The Olmstead decision, which interprets the Americans with Disabilities Act, is so clear that persistent misinterpretation by federal agencies can only be described as purposeful.


VOR is a national nonprofit advocacy organization that has for 32 years supported the right of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to receive services and supports according to their individual choice and need, regardless of setting.

We take this opportunity – the 25th Anniversary of the ADA - to set the record straight about what the landmark Olmstead decision actually says about the ADA’s “integration regulation.”  

July 26, 2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999)  is the landmark Supreme Court decision interpreting the ADA’s “integration regulation,” which states:

“a public entity must administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated, least restrictive setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” [28 C.F.R. § 35.130(d)].

The Olmstead Court considered whether the ADA’s prohibition of discrimination by a public entity required “placement of persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions.” (Olmstead at 587)

The Court’s answer: A “qualified yes.” (Id., emphasis added

Since 1999, however, federal agencies and some advocacy organizations have lost sight of the individual when considering the rights established by the Olmstead decision. A thoughtful decision which balanced individual need, choice, and the state’s resources against a statute that also required consideration of individual needs, has been discarded for an interpretation that the ADA, as interpreted by Olmstead, allows only community placement.  

In sharp contrast, both the Olmstead decision and the ADA eschew absolutes. Neither support only community care or only institutional care:

[O]ne conclusion seems plain: some disabled individuals can benefit from community placement, and some may not. While all disabled are covered by the ADA, different remedies are recognized by the statute for different degrees of disability.” [Brief of VOR et al., as Amici Curiae, in Olmstead v. L.C., at 6 (February 3, 1999)]

The Olmstead decision and the law are so clear that persistent misinterpretation by federal agencies can only be described as purposeful. 

Read full position paper