Lois Curtis: The Artist and The Disability Hero

by Seve Chambers

Lois Curtis is a local artist with works exhibited all around the state of Georgia. She is often invited to speak at places like John Jay University in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in DC and the Georgia State Capital, and has sold her pieces all around the country. Curtis is largely self taught and likes to do portraits of people. Sometimes she will paint without someone in front of her – which, as some artists like Missionary Mary says, are probably faces she’s recalling from the past – or look at record album covers and do sketches of musicians such as Rick James. Occasionally she likes to make clay pieces. Her earlier works tended to be stylized drawings of people, sometimes with ballpoint pens or pencils. Later she started to do pieces in pastel, sometimes giving them a watercolor style. Whether it’s with markers or crayons, she finds joy in people-watching and finding the next person who she wants to paint.

But many have come to know her through the Olmstead decision of 1999. Curtis was sent to live at the Georgia Regional hospital at the age of 11 after being diagnosed with mental and intellectual disabilities. She would bounce around centers, hospitals and jails throughout her childhood and teenage years as no one understood how to care for her. But she wanted to live independently through a community-living arrangement. Eventually she was deemed capable of living on her own, but the Georgia Department of Human Resources refused to provide her the proper resources. It was Sue Jamieson, an Atlanta-based legal aid attorney, who decided to represent her in a case against Tommy Olmstead, the commissioner of the Department. The lawsuit was filed with help from the Legal Aid Society, and another plaintiff, Elaine Wilson, who passed away in 2004, was also added on the side of Curtis.

The trial began in 1995, and it was during 1997 when judge Marvin Shoob ruled in favor of Curtis. This decision was appealed by the Department, and it would go all the way to the Supreme Court. It was in 1999 when judge Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and a court majority ruled it was unconstitutional to deprive Curtis and Wilson the resources needed to live independently. Ginsburg and others based their ruling on the grounds that, in isolating individuals like Curtis when they could benefit from community settings, that it was unconstitutional and a violation of their civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

President Barack Obama looks at a painting by Lois Curtis during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 20, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This decision was a triumph for the disability rights movement. It allowed many individuals with disabilities to move out of hospitals and centers, with federal and state support if needed. In shattering  this barrier, these people who were being denied the ability to live an ordinary life could now be on their own. Her impact led to her visiting the White House and meeting former President Obama, where she presented him with one of her pieces. She was also the recipient of the Harriet Tubman Act of Courage Award. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the trial, which was celebrated with a conference at the Georgia College of Law. 

Lois, however, simply wanted to pursue her passion for art – which she was not able to during her years at the center. In several of her works she would draw herself due to a lack of photos from her childhood. At times she would even travel to the Hammonds House garden to paint, or give her friends her drawing pad so they could write letters that she would dictate. She also has a micro-board of people who assists her with getting her artwork exposed to a larger audience. For a while she would spend her days at the Peer Center in Decatur, which is a local alternative to many traditional mental health programs. Sometimes she would go to art classes at a hobby shop and sells her drawings to fund her love for making art. 

In the end, all she wanted to do was to continue being an artist. And she helped so many others in fighting for this.

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Seve Chambers is a journalist based in Brooklyn. He is currently working with Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron’s former collaborator, on his memoir.

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