9 Landmark Cases in U.S. History that Protected the Rights of People with Disabilities

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP

[author: Lisa Rose]

At the heart of the fight for disability rights is the belief that equitable access should be granted in all spaces where life exists. The Americans with Disabilities Act put in place a formal mechanism for protecting the rights of people with disabilities, but people with disabilities have pushed for their rights long before its establishment. Here are select landmark cases that have made a positive difference in the lives of people with disabilities over the past 50 years.

PARC v Pennsylvania (1971)

Issue: Did a Pennsylvania state law violate the constitution by excluding children with intellectual disabilities from public education?

Decision: Parents of intellectually disabled children brought a class action against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, challenging state laws that allowed public schools to exclude children who had not reached a “mental age of five years” when they enrolled in first grade. The plaintiffs said exclusion was unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After hearing expert testimony about how children with intellectual disabilities benefit from education, the district court approved a consent agreement, obligating the schools to provide programs appropriate to the learning capacity of each student.

Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972)

Issue: Could schools in D.C. exclude children with disabilities from publicly funded education due to budgetary constraints?

Decision: Seven children with various physical, behavioral or emotional disabilities brought action against the school board for failing to provide publicly supported education, either in tailored programs at public schools or via tuition grants for private schools. Several of the children had been told they would be accommodated but none were placed when the fall semester began. The school board claimed that it had insufficient funding to help the students. The DC District Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, holding that the school had a legal duty to provide the children with publicly supported education suited to each student’s needs. The consequences of insufficient funding, the court held, should not impact children with disabilities more heavily than other students.

O'Connor v. Donaldson (1975)

Issue: Can a state confine an individual who is mentally ill but poses no danger to himself and others?

Decision: After being confined for nearly fifteen years in a psychiatric facility, Kenneth Donaldson brought an action for damages against J.B. O’Connor, the assistant clinical director of the hospital. Evidence showed that Donaldson had repeatedly asked to be released and he was not a danger to himself or others. Also, the hospital failed to provide him with regular talk therapy. O’Connor argued he acted in good faith and followed state law, which authorized confinement for those with psychiatric illnesses. The Supreme Court ultimately acknowledged in its unanimous ruling that the state cannot confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of living outside the facility.

Youngberg v. Romeo (1982)

Issue: Does the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause grant involuntarily committed individuals the right to safe confinement free from physical restraint?

Decision: Nicholas Romeo, a 33-year-man with intellectual disabilities, was involuntarily committed to a facility called the Pennhurst State School and Hospital. There, he suffered injuries in several incidents and was sometimes physically restrained. Romeo’s mother sued as his next friend, claiming her son’s rights were violated under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The jury concluded Pennhurst did not violate Romeo’s rights, after being instructed the verdict hinged on finding the defendants had been “deliberately indifferent” to the plaintiff’s needs. The Third Circuit reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the circuit’s decision, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment granted Romeo the right to safe confinement and freedom from physical restraints.

City of Cleburne, Texas v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985)

Issue: Did a municipal council violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by denying a permit to a home for residents with intellectual disabilities?

Decision: In 1980, a group called the Cleburne Living Center (CLC) intended to open a group home for 13 men and women with intellectual disabilities, to be staffed 24 hours a day. The city told the CLC that a special use permit was required to operate such a facility, which officials categorized as a "hospital for the insane or feebleminded,” per a zoning ordinance. After a public hearing, the city council denied the permit. The center filed suit, arguing that the zoning ordinance and its application were discriminatory and unconstitutional. The district court initially ruled in favor of the city but the appeals court reversed the decision. When the Supreme Court weighed in, the justices affirmed that the city’s refusal to issue the permit appeared to be rooted in an irrational prejudice against individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Ford v. Wainwright (1986)

Issue: Does the constitution prohibit the death penalty for individuals who are found competent to stand trial but later exhibit symptoms of mental illness?

Decision: Alvin Bernard Ford was convicted of murder in 1974 and sentenced to death. At the time of the offense and at sentencing, he appeared competent but he subsequently began displaying behavioral changes and symptoms of mental illness, with delusions that the Ku Klux Klan was involved in a conspiracy to get him to commit suicide. He later began calling himself Pope John Paul, III. He was examined by two psychiatrists, one of whom said he was not competent to be executed. The governor ordered further examination by three doctors and they each concluded that Ford was competent. The governor signed a death warrant and a state court declined to set a hearing to reevaluate the prisoner’s competency. Ford’s habeas corpus petition was denied without a hearing by the district court and the appeals court. The Supreme Court took up the case and found that executing the insane is “savage and inhumane,” per common law, and such executions do not benefit society. The justices further ruled that the state’s competency procedures were inadequate.

Olmstead v. L.C. (1999)

Issue: Can financial constraints determine whether states comply with the ADA’s provision that public entities must provide community-based services to individuals where appropriate?

Decision: Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson were voluntarily admitted to Georgia Regional Hospital for mental health treatment. Instead of releasing them after treatment, the hospital kept the women in psychiatric isolation for years. They filed suit to be released, pointing to the ADA’s requirement that individuals with mental disabilities must be placed in the most communally integrated setting possible when they are cleared by doctors. The state argued that it lacked the resources to provide the women with care in a communally integrated setting. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that public entities must provide community services when (1) such services are appropriate, (2) the individuals express a desire to be moved to such settings and (3) the resources needed for the transfer of one patient will not fundamentally change how the state provides services to others with disabilities.

PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin (2001)

Issue: Does the ADA require a professional sports association to make modifications for a participant with a disability?

Decision: Casey Martin, a golfer with a degenerative circulatory disease in one leg, requested to use a golf cart instead of walking in the third stage of a qualifying tournament for the PGA. After the organization refused to allow him to use the cart instead of walking, he filed an action under Title III of the ADA and the district court ultimately granted an injunction against the PGA. The court explained the purpose of the walking rule was to test the endurance of golfers and Martin’s disability already made the game an endurance test, even if he used the cart. The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, adding that golf courses qualify as places of public accommodation, so the ADA is applicable. The Supreme Court affirmed 7-2, holding that the PGA was required to make a change to accommodate Martin’s disability, since allowing him to use the cart would not dramatically alter the nature of the game or give Martin an unfair advantage.

Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. (2005)

Issue: Must foreign-flagged cruise ships comply with the public accommodations provisions of the ADA in U.S. waters?

Decision: Douglas Spector booked a premium trip on a cruise, paying extra for wheelchair accommodations, and found himself marooned from many of the ship’s amenities. He could not access restaurants and pools. Shore excursions were off limits and none of the ship’s public restrooms were wheelchair accessible. The crew did not help him with an evacuation plan in case of emergency. Spector and two other disabled travelers decided to band together and sue the company under Title III of the ADA. The cruise operator argued that the ADA did not apply because their ships sail under the Bahamian flag. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that there are ADA protections for disabled travelers on ships in U.S. waters but they are limited in scope. Cruise operators cannot charge extra for accommodations. Readily achievable fixes should be made to help those with mobility issues. Companies are not, however, obligated to overhaul older ships in compliance with the ADA. That could potentially interfere with the internal management or affairs of a foreign-flagged ship, which is governed by the laws of another country.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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