Disability History Month: Lois Curtis Artist and Disability Advocate Paved the Way

Lois Curtis. Photo courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA
Lois Curtis, Decatur, GA, 10 years after Olmstead Decision. Photo courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA

October is Disability History Month. Lois Curtis is an African American artist with intellectual and developmental disabilities and schizophrenia. Curtis paved the way for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to get out of institutional settings and live within communities.

By Angela Weddle

Lois Curtis was placed in Georgia Regional Hospital when she was only 11 years old. She would spend her teenage years and early twenties in and out of various institutions for people with developmental disabilities. She would regularly call the Atlanta Legal Aid Society asking for help getting out. She talks about her desire to leave the institution.

I prayed to God. I cried at night so I prayed to God every night in my bed.

Lois Curtis is one of the plaintiffs in the now famous 1999 Olmstead Supreme Court decision. A case decided in part by the honorable late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The name Olmstead comes from the name of the Defendant in the case, Tommy Olmstead, who was the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources. Title II of the 1990 American with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits public entities from discriminating against persons with disabilities by reason of their disabilities. The Olmstead Decision applied this to institutional settings.

The Olmstead Decision states:

“On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court held in Olmstead v. L.C. that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court held that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when (1) such services are appropriate; (2) the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and (3) community-based services can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the public entity and the needs of others who are receiving disability services from the entity.

“The Supreme Court explained that its holding “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 of 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.”

The Olmstead decision has been called the most important civil rights decision in the history of the United States for disabled people.

Although the Olmstead decision only involved one type of institution, which was a psychiatric hospital, court cases after the Decision made clear that Olmstead applied to all state and Medicaid-funded institutions, including nursing facilities.

“The Women of Olmstead” by Lois Curtis. Photo: Tracy Coffin
“The Women of Olmstead” by Lois Curtis. Photo: Tracy Coffin

The Olmstead Decision has applications beyond institutions. In 2014, Olmstead was part of a settlement with the state of Rhode Island relating to sheltered workshops. Olmstead was also part of a settlement in Georgia that included individuals in forensic hospitals who had been found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

While Lois Curtis’s contribution to disability and civil rights history is immeasurable, her life extends far beyond that seminal court case.

Lois Curtis artwork, untitled. Photo Courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA
Lois Curtis art untitled. Photo Courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA

Curtis is a self-taught visual artist, known for her portraits. Recently she has taken up a new passion singing and song writing. She writes original songs and her own versions of Motown hits.

A highlight of her art career was her presentation of her art to President Obama.

President Barack Obama looks at a painting by Lois Curtis during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 20, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Her work ranges from ballpoint pen drawings in her earlier work to vivid pastel and marker work. She has exhibited her work in Atlanta, Georgia and has had several gallery exhibitions. She has been invited to speak about her life and work nationally.

I go out to eat sometimes. I take art classes. I draw pretty pictures and make money. I go out of town and sell me artwork. I go to church and pray to the Lord. I raise my voice high! In the summer I go to the pool and put my feet in the water. Maybe I’ll learn to swim someday. I been fishing. I seen a pig and a horse on a farm. I buy clothes and shoes. I have birthday parties. They a lot of fun. I’m not afraid of big dogs no more. I feel good about myself. My life a better life.

Lois Curtis

Today, Ms. Curtis receives community-based support and enjoys life outside the confines of institutional living. Her artistic talent and passion for creativity have motivated her to make art and advocacy her life’s work. Her artwork, typically done in pastels and acrylics, are heartfelt, bold expressions of how deeply she values personal relationships. They are mainly portraits, capturing intense emotions with simple lines and bold colors. Curtis is a woman of vision and courage who has enabled all of us to have a chance to put our own visions of our lives into the world.

Lois Curtis pastel artwork,"Mr. Hill." Lois Curtis artwork, untitled. Photo Courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA
Lois Curtis pastel art “Mr. Hill.” Photo Courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA

We are still fighting for equal access and supports today. Waiting lists are long and lip service is often paid to community inclusion. While inclusion can be wonderful, many programs amount to nothing more than the trap of patronizing benevolence.

Many autistics and disabled individuals fall through the cracks when our needs don’t fit the categorization that still exists to limit our humanity. We still face legal, medical, and social challenges, issues of access, and must continue to fight for self determination and autonomy.

Nevertheless, we must honor those who have helped to pave the way. Thank you to Lois Curtis for having a vision for humanity.

Lois Curtis art untitled. Photo Courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA

References:

https://www.ada.gov/olmstead/olmstead_about.htm
https://www.respectability.org/2018/02/one-woman-disabilities-fight-freedom/lois-curtis-900×506/
About Olmstead
Impact Newsletter: Lois Curtis on Life After the Institution

Header photo courtesy of Robin Rayne/ZUMA creativerayne.com

Angela Weddle

“I’m a disabled human being who should be able to live. Being on the margins of society and being told to be grateful that I’m even on the margins is not civil rights or equal access or full participation. And yes we are angry, many in “communities” are too. And we have a right to be.” Angela Weddle

Art of Autism Board member Angela N. Weddle is a professional visual artist who is autistic, has cerebral palsy, and congenital right hemisphere brain damage. She is originally from New Orleans, LA and has lived in San Antonio, Texas for a decade. She is 36 years old.

Weddle is a neurological anomaly and savant, who is not supposed to have any artistic ability but always has. She has mentored students about poetry and art and participated as a mentor for Summer on the Hill, a program for autistic and intellectually disabled young adults. She has also read and performed slam poetry at PuroSlam and with the San Antonio Jazz Poets. She has taught students ranging from young children to adults art privately in San Antonio, TX. She is also a published poet in the journal Barking Sycamores Year One; Edited by V. Solomon Maday & N.I. Nicholson. Weddle has blogged and is a contributing blogger for the international blog The Art of Autism. Weddle also lectures about autism awareness and advocacy to local organizations and corporations such as H.E.B. Weddle is known for her sketchbooks, in particular, and has been mentioned in the San Antonio Current, as well as, interviewed by the local arts magazine, Arts United San Antonio, major online magazine PopSugar for her digital art along with partnering with Apple, and has contributed animation to exciting upcoming projects.

2 Comments

  • Hello Art of autism we have done interview you before underground lockdown this year I was fully booked for art shows and exhibitions which stop overnight which was not good because I am myself severely dyslexic autistic but what I decided to do do was make a studio where I can work from and to produce art which was very important for my own well-being I’m from my mental health being a peer mentor myself I fully understand before benefits of Arts and of the creative Industries which seems to be losing badly out at the moment we do need government back in because it’s so so important but I do believe that art is so beneficial for all sites of issues like mental health well-being mindfulness and many are issues which people face today especially during the pandemic people need a creative inspiration call through the work you’re doing is fantastic I hope to catch up with you very soon soon as some of my latest work does grammar may need check in apologise for that that you’re it’s early Mark

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