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Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan: What is it and why does it matter?

Date Published: 10/27/2015

Author: George Shardlow

September 29 was a big day. While its effects will only be felt by a segment of Minnesotans, for those with disabilities, the landscape of this state has been radically transformed. That is because, on September 29, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank approved Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan.


You might be thinking, “That’s great!...What are you talking about?”


To answer that question, we must make like The Devil and go on down to Georgia. It was in that state that, 20 years ago, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with disabilities, challenged the state of Georgia on its delivery of services to citizens with disabilities. Both women wanted to live and work in community-based settings, but the State of Georgia (like most other states) only offered institutionalized residential settings and workshops.


The case, Olmstead v. L.C.  (1999), wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In its ruling, the Court proclaimed that only offering Americans with disabilities residential and workforce options in institutionalized settings, in effect, constituted segregation. The Court mandated that all states develop a plan for developing integrated, community-based residential and workforce programs for Americans with disabilities. While the case is not well-known by many outside the world of disability advocacy, it is nothing short of Americans with disabilities’ equivalent of Brown v. Board.


Sadly, in Minnesota along with most states, what ensued was the sound of crickets. States were so slow to respond that the U.S. Department of Justice began suing states for the failure to comply with the Court’s ruling. In a case that paralleled Olmstead, Jensen, et al. v. Minnesota Department of Human Services, et al. (2009), residents of a treatment facility in Cambridge alleged that the Minnesota Department of Human Services had failed to provide integrated options for Minnesotans with disabilities. In 2011, the U.S. District Court adopted a settlement agreement and the State promised to begin working on a plan to meet the Court’s demands.


In 2013, Governor Dayton issued Executive Order 13-01, which established the Olmstead Sub-cabinet, charged with developing the plan. After having previous drafts rejected, the State has now produced a plan that meets the Court’s criteria. So, are all Minnesotans with disabilities going to be living and working in integrated settings, starting tomorrow?
The answer is no, for two reasons:

1) What lies before us is a massive re-design of the delivery of state services for Minnesotans with disabilities, involving multiple state agencies. That’s a heavy lift that will take time and will only occur if Minnesotans stay vigilant and demand that the state follow through.
2) In truth, Olmstead is not so much about integration as it is about individual choice. If a person with a disability wishes to stay in an institutional setting, then forcing them out into the community is just as much a denial of individual agency as is confining individuals who wish to be in the community. In fact, subsequent reviews have found that the State of Georgia’s mass transfer of people with disabilities into community-based settings has endangered many patients.

What, then, does this mean for the average Minnesotan with a disability? It means that for the first time they will have a say in shaping their own destiny. They will be given a path out of poverty and an opportunity to interact directly with their fellow Minnesotans. Above all else, as with any integration effort, one can ultimately hope that increasing interactions between Minnesotans with and without disabilities will be fatal for whatever prejudices remain regarding people with disabilities.


In the end, this is all simply the application of a very basic principle to policy design. That principle is the notion that people with disabilities are not a monolithic group and the services they receive should be tailored to their individual wishes and disability.

George Shardlow serves as Economic Development Intern for Growth & Justice. He holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and has worked extensively in the disability policy arena. 

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