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Olmstead Decision Anniversary Event

HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Washington, DC
June 20, 2014

As Prepared for Delivery

Introduction

Thank you all very much.  Let me take this opportunity to offer greetings to those of you who are joining online via webcast. 

I also want to say a special word of welcome to our friends from the Justice Department, Jocelyn Samuels and Eve Hill, along with Bryan Greene who joins us from HUD.   

One of the things I’ve learned since I came aboard at the Department of Health and Human Services is that we’re very lucky to have people like Kathy Greenlee and Sharon Lewis, who are doing such important work at the Administration for Community Living … as well as Leon Rodriguez, our great Director of the Office for Civil Rights.

This is actually my third speaking opportunity as Secretary.   I hope this signals how important these issues are to me and to this Administration.

My second speaking event was earlier today.  We were marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.  There is a certain poetry to the fact that in the very same year we celebrate this anniversary, we’re also able to mark the 15th anniversary of the Olmstead decision – and next year we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you think about it, these landmark reforms are all branches of the same tree.  I believe that the roots of this tree are human dignity, equal rights, and equal opportunity for all Americans – regardless of race, regardless of creed, and regardless of whether or not we happen to experience a disability. 

At its very core, this is what the mission of this Department is all about: making sure that all of us have an equal opportunity to obtain the building blocks of a healthy, successful life. 

That’s what the story of the Olmstead decision is about, too.  Yes, it’s the story of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson – two Americans living with disabilities who were confined to an institution for years after they requested release and their teams determined they were ready to live in the community …

… But in a sense, it’s also a story about all of us.   

We are one nation.  The question is “what do we, as one nation, stand for?”

Do we believe in the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act – equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency?  Or are we content with allowing some of our neighbors to stay in the shadows? 

Are we giving our fellow Americans the tools to live healthy and productive lives?  Or are we turning our heads and looking the other way? 

Importance of Olmstead

The importance of the Olmstead decision is that it affirmed that people with disabilities should not have to choose between the support they need and the home they love.

It was a decision rooted in dignity; it was a decision rooted in equality; and it was a decision rooted in relationships:  The relationship between civil rights and health policy… The relationship between the environment where patients receive services and the impact of these services … Our relationship with one another.

This is what inspired President Obama, on the 10th anniversary of Olmstead, to affirm that access to housing, community supports, and independent living arrangements would be a priority of this Administration – and they are.   

Progress for Americans with Disabilities

This past year, our world lost one of the great champions for people living with disabilities, Nelson Mandela.  I wanted to share with you just a few words of his:

We cannot claim to have reached anywhere near to where a society should be in terms of practical equality of the disabled.  We continue to try… It is not a question of patronizing philanthropy... It is for us to adapt our understanding of a common humanity; to learn of the richness of how human life is diverse; to recognize the presence of disability in our human midst as an enrichment of our diversity.”

Fifteen years from now, when we mark the 30th anniversary of Olmstead, how will we be able to answer the question about what we stood for?  To paraphrase the late Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania – what did we do when we had the power?

Whether you’re an advocate, an employee at Justice, HUD, or here at HHS, or if you’re one of our future partners, if you’re willing to work together with us, then someday when you’re asked this question, you’ll be able to say you strengthened and created the Administration for Community Living.

You’ll be able to say that you helped tens of thousands of Americans transition out of institutions and back into their communities.

And you’ll be able to say that you were part of an historic expansion of home and community-based supports and services – with nearly 50 cents of every dollar we invest in Medicaid long-term care now being invested in community settings (compared to about half that at the time of the Olmstead decision).   

Conclusion

Once again, let me just say that it’s great to have the opportunity to share this anniversary with all of you. 

Thank you all very much.


Content last reviewed on June 20, 2014