The disability rights movement in Georgia is a civil and human rights movement that seeks to secure equal access and opportunities for people with disabilities. In addition to being the home of several landmark cases, Georgia has also participated in national disability rights campaigns and hosted such internationally significant events as the 1996 Paralympic Games.
Prior to the mobilization of the disability rights movement in the 1960s, few legal protections were afforded to individuals with disabilities. In the early part of the twentieth century, Georgia, like many states, passed legislation based on the theory of eugenics, which advocated the removal of “undesirable” genetic traits from the human gene pool.
In 1937 the Georgia General Assembly implemented a statewide sterilization law, signed by Governor E. D. Rivers, “to provide for the sterilization of select persons from the inmates of the State Institutions . . . for the protection of such individuals, the State, and future generations.” Of the nearly 3,300 sterilizations performed on Georgia patients between 1937 and 1963, the majority were on those deemed mentally or physically disabled. Proponents of compulsory sterilization in Georgia included progressive politician Ellis Arnall, who served as Georgia’s governor from 1943 to 1947.
The institutionalization of Americans with disabilities in state-run hospitals was also common in the first half of the twentieth century. Central State Hospital in Milledgeville was, for a time, the largest mental health institution in the United States, housing more than 12,000 patients at its peak in the early 1960s. Stories of abuse, neglect, and controversial treatment regimens, including insulin shock and electroconvulsive therapy, were rampant. Another major facility, Gracewood State School and Hospital near Augusta, opened in 1921. By 1964 Gracewood housed approximately 1,800 patients with developmental disabilities, while an additional 1,600 were on a waiting list for admission.
The disability rights movement began in Georgia as early as 1927, when future U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to treat people with physical disabilities resulting from polio, a disease that he contracted in 1921. Today the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Warm Springs continues to serve patients recovering not only from polio symptoms but also spinal cord injuries and strokes. Since its founding, numerous disability rights and advocacy organizations have originated or established headquarters in Georgia.
In 1964 the Governor’s Commission for Efficiency and Improvement in Government issued a report to Governor Carl Sanders and the Georgia General Assembly entitled “Treatment Programs for the Mentally Ill and Mentally Retarded in Georgia,” with the aim of documenting and offering solutions to the widespread problems in the state’s institutions. The report noted the scheduled opening in 1965 of the Georgia Mental Health Institute at Emory University in Atlanta, which was expected to “produce the mental health specialists needed . . . to provide adequate programs in mental health and mental retardation.” In 1967 the University of Georgia in Athens opened the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD), which works “with individuals with disabilities, their family members, federal and state agencies, service providers, and others” to create opportunities for people with disabilities. As part of its program, IHDD offers a disability studies certificate to supplement degrees in a variety of academic disciplines at the university.
In the 1970s, the philosophy of independent living evolved from the work of disability rights activists and centers on the belief that barriers to individual independence are caused more by societal attitudes and public policy than by particular diagnoses, labels, or conditions. Federal legislation led to a mandate that states provide guidance for the development and expansion of independent living programs. As a result, the Statewide Independent Living Council of Georgia (SILC) was founded in 1995 to promote equal participation of people with disabilities in their communities and increase the supports and services necessary for people with disabilities to find independent living opportunities.
The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (DD Council), which reports to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, was created in 1970 to “promote public policy that creates an integrated community life for persons with developmental disabilities.” From 1999 to 2016, the DD Council sponsored the annual Disability Day at the Georgia state capitol, which featured a community rally to “promote access, opportunity and meaningful community living for all Georgians.” ADAPT, formed in 1983 as American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit in Denver, Colorado, established an Atlanta chapter in 1986. It advocates for accessible public transportation and other disability rights issues. Atlanta’s MARTA was the first public transit system in Georgia to install lifts on buses to assist riders.
The disability rights movement continued to make significant gains in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Shortly after the 1996 Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta, the city also hosted the 1996 Paralympic Games, in which 3,259 athletes from 104 countries participated. The 1996 Paralympic Games were distinguished from previous Paralympic Games for several reasons: the event was the first to attract worldwide corporate sponsorship; it focused on disability rights in politics and economics as well as in sports; and it was the first to give competitors with intellectual disabilities full medal status.
Landmark Court Decisions
Two late-twentieth-century court cases in Georgia paved the way for advances at both the state and national level in independent living for people with disabilities.
Larry McAfee Case
In 1989, four years after a motorcycle accident left him quadriplegic, Larry McAfee filed suit in Atlanta’s superior court seeking the right to turn off the ventilator that was keeping him alive. Both the superior court and the Supreme Court of Georgia, where the case was sent to obtain legal precedent, ruled in McAfee’s favor, though he ultimately chose not to remove the ventilator.
While the ruling was in itself notable due to its legal ramifications for self-determination, many disability rights advocates claimed that what McAfee truly desired was the right to decide where and with whom he would live. Previously, after his private insurance had expired, he was dependent upon social services, such as Medicaid and other government programs, which transferred him to various nursing facilities both within and outside Georgia without his consent. At the time of the lawsuit, Georgia provided fewer community-based support options for people with disabilities than nearly any state in the country. The McAfee case set a precedent for subsequent litigation pertaining to the disabled, including Olmstead v. L.C.
In 1995 the Atlanta Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the State of Georgia, specifically Tommy Olmstead in his capacity as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, on behalf of two individuals, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Identified in court filings simply as L.C. and E.W., both women had spent the majority of their lives involuntarily confined to mental institutions despite statements from doctors and specialists that they would be better served by community-based treatment facilities.
The Atlanta Legal Aid Society argued that forced confinement of mentally ill individuals was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), which outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities. In 1999, after several decisions and appeals in lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of L.C. and E.W., stating: “we conclude that, under Title II of the ADA, States are required to provide community-based treatment for persons with mental disabilities when the State’s treatment professionals determine that such placement is appropriate, the affected persons do not oppose such treatment, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”
In June 1996 Athens-based River’s Crossing (originally the Athens Unit of the Georgia Retardation Center) became the first mental institution in the state to close permanently. Though more institutions closed in subsequent years, including the Georgia Mental Health Institute in 1997, quality of care did not necessarily increase. In 2007 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of articles about Georgia’s state mental hospitals. The newspaper found that between 2002 and the end of 2006, 115 patients had died under suspicious circumstances, including fourteen-year-old Sarah Crider, a patient who died of preventable causes at Georgia Regional Hospital in DeKalb County. Reporters also found “a pattern of neglect, abuse, and poor medical care in [Georgia’s] seven state hospitals, as well as a lack of public accountability for patient deaths.”
In the wake of the 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution expose, as well as mobilization efforts by the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation. The state of Georgia settled the case in 2010. In addition to confirming that preventable deaths, suicides, and assaults were abnormally high in the state, the Department of Justice found that Georgia was failing “to serve individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs,” as mandated by Olmstead v. L.C. The settlement required that Georgia move approximately 9,000 mentally disabled patients out of state hospitals and into community settings.
The implementation of the 2010 settlement has not been easy. By 2014 only 480 Georgians with developmental disabilities had been moved into community residences, rendering the state out of compliance with the settlement agreement.
Disability History Alliance
In 2013 the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta hospital specializing in spinal cord and brain injuries, and the Institute on Human Development and Disability formed the Georgia Disability History Alliance, with a goal of protecting and preserving Georgia’s disability history. To advance this mission, the Alliance partnered with the University of Georgia’s Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies to establish the Georgia Disability History Archive.
Collections in the archive include personal papers, memorabilia, and administrative records documenting the vital and transformative work undertaken by disability activists and organizations, as well as the experiences of people with disabilities. The Alliance counts more than 100 members, including advocates, self-advocates, organizational leaders, archivists, researchers, and other partners.