Lois Curtis, who changed U.S. mental health treatment, dies from cancer

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

Those who knew Lois Curtis best marveled at her luminous, thousand-watt smile. That wide-angle grin was all the more remarkable in that she was shunted in and out of Georgia institutions for two decades because of cognitive and psychiatric disabilities.

She became well known for her role in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that expanded freedoms and treatment for institutionalized patients and for her vivid artwork.

“I’m gonna draw your picture…three dollars!” she would announce as a customer in a Chick-fil-A or local coffee shop passed close to a table where she had set up. Art supplies close at hand, she’d cock an eyebrow and wait for a response. That smile would put her potential clients at ease.

About half of those passing by would say yes, drawn in by what one friend called her “capital V, vivacious personality.” Curtis would go to work capturing someone’s essence with a few deft strokes of chalk or watercolors.

Her freedom and fame came after Olmstead v. LC, her legal challenge that caused the high court to release Curtis and thousands like her from state hospitals, and provided state and Medicaid-funded community treatment — a decision some say was as significant as Brown v. Board of Education.

The seeds of it were sown when a social worker at the Georgia Regional Hospital put Curtis onto attorney Sue Jamieson’s radar. The worker believed Curtis could benefit from a particular developmental program — one she was ineligible for due to her state hospitalization. By all accounts, doctors and others at the hospital agreed she didn’t need to be there.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society took up her cause. Jamieson recalled in a later video documentary that Curtis made no bones about her desire to join the everyday world. “She pleaded ‘Get me out of here, please get me out of here, when am I going to get out of here? ‘” Jamieson said.

Believing Curtis and many like her were unnecessarily confined, the society sued Georgia, claiming Curtis, co-plaintiff Elaine Wilson and many like them were segregated in a discriminatory way.

The high court ruled in 1999 that undue isolation of people with disabilities amounted to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, adding that the patients had a right to receive community-based services outside of institutions. It sparked a sea change in the treatment of the disabled.

“She was famous and she didn’t even know it, “said Kim Bee, region director of Briggs & Associates. It’s an agency that matches disabled people with jobs and provides training and support.

“I think the big significance [of Olmstead], she had trouble grasping,” Bee continued. “What she did grasp was that it gave her freedom.”

Curtis, 55, died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 3 surrounded by devoted friends. A memorial service was held Nov. 12. She is survived by an aunt and siblings, said associates.

A major piece of her post-confinement life fell into place not long after Olmstead. She lived in a group home, mastering life skills after her release. Then, after attempts to place her in a community job fizzled, friends and advocates formed a semi-formal help circle said Anne Ladd, a longtime friend. “It aimed to provide Lois support for her decision-making in order for her to live the most independent life possible,” she said.

Another friend set up “art parties” at her home to showcase Curtis’ work, and she arranged for lessons. That eventually led to art gallery and one-woman showings and a meeting with President Barack Obama, who received one of her works.

ExploreRights of disabled people: Learn more about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case

The community also became her studio. Briggs career specialist Lee Sanders regularly ferried her about Decatur and Stone Mountain, hitting up fast-food restaurants, coffee bars and other places where she could chat up and paint or draw passers-by. She became a fixture in the area. And not just at businesses and community centers.

“In the spring and summer the car windows would be down. We’d stop at a stoplight and we’d pull up next to a driver and she’d start singing or talking to them. There’d be a pause,” said Sanders, but that patented grin would put people at ease.

Another time her art was being auctioned at a function in Washington, D.C.

“I was trying to find her because people kept bidding, and it was going through the roof. I found her in the hallway flirting with a fireman,” she recalled. “But it was in a sweet way.”

The Olmstead case also put her on a high-profile stage. She took part in panels and keynoted disability-related conferences, where she advocated for disability rights. She met briefly with President Obama in 2011.

“She was a very self-determined person. She got people to listen to her and it carried through her whole life,” said Ladd.