RBG Fundamentally Shaped the Lives of Women with Disabilities

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an old white woman with brown hair, wears glasses and a loose shawl and sits on stage while smiling.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Photo credit: Hillel Steinberg/Flickr/Creative Commons)

It wasn’t until I was midway through college that I first heard of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I was at the 2015 Columbia Women in Business Conference to hear Gloria Steinem speak on a panel, and Steinem couldn’t stop extolling her friend and feminist compatriot, RBG. The event came during the justice’s rise to unexpected, late-career fame as a pop culture icon; these days, when I think about Ginsburg’s legacy, I think about the access I have to abortion, my ability to open my own bank account, and the right to lease an apartment my name. But perhaps even more, I think about her less-exalted legacy of fighting for disability rights. The same erasure of disability in my otherwise intersectional feminist-theory classes and readings is evident in discussions about Ginsburg’s legacy.

One of my most prominent identities was missing from the narrative: disability. And, in Ginsburg’s case, her work around disability rights and justice remains in the background of her work, despite its material impact and great value. This erasure reflects a larger, long-standing cultural willingness to disregard disability rights; as such, it feels important that we both remember and highlight Ginsburg’s work on behalf ofdisabled people. I have cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects my speech and mobility. I don’t define myself solely in terms of my disability, but it significantly shapes how I interact with people and the world. Like other social identities, disability is a social construct, meaning systematic barriers—literal and otherwise—negative attitudes, and societal exclusion are the main contributory factors in creating the concept of disability. One of Ginsburg’s biggest contributions to disability rights took place in 1999. 

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That year, she wrote the majority opinion for the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. ruling, which affirmed the rights of people with disabilities to live in mainstream communities outside of medical institutions. The case involved Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities who remained institutionalized even after medical professionals indicated that they could continue their treatments in community-based programs. Justice Ginsburg wrote in her opinion that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities violates Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Furthermore, she emphasized that “[i]nstitutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.”

The Olmstead v. L.C. ruling eliminated unnecessary segregation and provided services to people with disabilities in the most integrated environments appropriate to their needs. In 2003, this ruling was applied to those with physical disabilities who need assistance with personal care. Six years later, it became the cornerstone of President Obama’s nationwide program to enforce integration. In an example of Ginsburg’s tangible impact, the Obama administration worked with state and local government officials, disability rights groups, and attorneys nationwide to continue integrating people with disabilities into the rest of society. The United States Justice Department made Olmstead a priority of its civil rights division and began to enforce it in state after state. “This big moment, and (Ginsburg’s) staunch affirmation of the human dignity of people with disabilities and their rightful place in the community of their choice, fundamentally changed the course of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities,” Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, a national disability right organization, told Disability Scoop.

Although the fight for disability rights is not complete, Justice Ginsburg used her power and privilege to bring the fight for disability rights to the legal mainstream.

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In the Olmstead opinion, Ginsburg explicitly connected discrimination against people with disabilities to racial and gender bias. Further, she stated that anti-discrimination laws ought to be interpreted to include the disability community. This court decision is named as the most important civil rights ruling for people with disabilities by expanding the meaning and interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While mental illness and disability affect both women and men, there is an entrenched history in the United States and beyond, of attributing mental disorders—specifically “hysteria”—to women. In fact, while multiple sclerosis (MS) is three to four times more common among women, men were diagnosed with it more often than women until the 1920s because women who presented with symptoms of the disease were instead diagnosed with hysteria.

Sexual and physical abuse of women with disabilities, too, was rampant in mental institutions and assisted-living facilities, with incidents often went unreported. In extreme cases, women with disabilities were forcefully and involuntarily sterilized. As the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1973, Ginsburg argued in federal court to overturn gruesome state eugenics programs targeted at women with disabilities. Ginsburg began her tenure as a Supreme Court justice in 1993, and women with disabilities were far behind in having the same caliber of rights and dignity as nondisabled women (which were sparse to begin with). And though there’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to disability rights and justice, Olmstead case paved the way for further legislation and efforts to integrate people with disabilities into society.

Women with disabilities, myself included, can exercise the rights given to our nondisabled counterparts to live just and fulfilling lives, rather than to be confined to an institution. Women without disabilities are treated as second-class citizens, even to this day, and adding a disability to that identity bumps you even further down the social hierarchy. And without Ginsburg’s instrumental involvement in Olmstead, we wouldn’t even have the freedom to advocate and fight for our rights alongside our nondisabled peers. I often think about the very different trajectory my life could taken had Olmstead been argued differently, and if Ginsburg hadn’t been there to ensure disability rights remained top of mind, rather than pushed to the background for another year, or another time. Although the fight for disability rights is not complete, Justice Ginsburg used her power and privilege to bring the fight for disability rights to the legal mainstream. I’ve learned the best way to thank her is to walk along the path she passionately paved for me and others—and to work to ensure that the next wave of feminism prioritizes disability rights.


by Sarah Kim
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