From the CEO: Lois Curtis

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Image of Lois Curtis, a Black woman with short brown hair, and a huge smile, holding up some of her artwork.

Her smile was contagious. It held such joy when it was shared. Who knew that behind that smile was a life that included institutionalization and isolation?

Her early life, growing up in a public housing project, was marked with episodes of violence that resulted in a referral for evaluation. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, she would have spent over half of her life in facilities ensuring she was segregated because of her disability. Lois Curtis was moved between state institutions, hospitals and even a nursing home as her family (and the state) looked for where to place this young woman with an intellectual disability and mental illness.

In June 1999 she was the plaintiff in what would become known as Olmstead v. L.C., a monumental civil rights case that ultimately ruled that the “least restrictive alternative” was the housing right of persons with a disability. That ruling moved her, and many others, out of institutions and into their own homes.

Olmstead established the three-part test to allow community living over more institutionalized options that were often the routine. These three are:

  1. The person’s treatment professionals determine that community supports are appropriate
  2. The person does not object to living in the community AND
  3. The provision of services in the community would be a reasonable accommodation when balanced with other similarly situated individuals with disabilities.

What I love so much about reading these three points is the clarity that is so much the mission of AWS Foundation. They speak to the issues of the choice of the disabled, the provision of community supports and finding reasonable accommodations. That third part of this test was the driver of so many of our recent Vantage Grants. We are working every day to help provide those reasonable accommodations to support community living.

 In 1999 when this decision was shared, the ADA had not yet seen its 10-year anniversary.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced the decision in June addressing those still all too visible state institutions. Since Olmstead, courts have similarly applied Olmstead ruling to nursing homes and forensic hospitals and, in 2014, it was part of the foundation on a settlement related to sheltered workshops.

We have a picture of Lois in our office with President Barack Obama and a crowd of others. Lois, with that wonderful smile, is next to him holding one of her classic portraits. Besides the obvious advocacy link between Lois and AWS Foundation, there is another. It is one other woman in that photo. Lee Sanders was Lois’ friend and support for many years. Lee grew up in Fort Wayne but met Lois in Georgia and worked with her, often providing art supplies.  With the help of Lee and her Mom, Joan Golder, we now have two of Lois’ portraits in our board room.

Image of three pictures hanging on a wall. Two are paintings by Lois Curtis and the third is a photo of Lois with President Obama at the White House

Some of Lois Curtis’ work and the photo of her with President Obama that are hanging in our office.

We like to name our rooms after those who have helped shape disability advocacy. One room is named after Helen Keller and another after Justin Dart.

This year, we are placing a new name on that doorway of the board room. To recognize her unending passion for life and independence, as well as that contagious smile, it will be The Lois Curtis Room going forward. Thank you, Lois, for your all too brief life. (Pancreatic Cancer cut short her creative life at 55 years.) Your struggle against segregation has ensured a lasting impact for everyone with disabilities.

“I hope they (others like her) live long lives and have their own place. I hope they make money. I hope they learn every day. I hope they meet new people, celebrate their birthdays, write letters, clean up, go to friends’ houses and drink coffee. I hope they have a good breakfast every day, call people on the phone, feel safe.” – Lois Curtis