A Brief History of the Disability Rights Movement in America

Published October 27, 2021

One in four American adults lives with a disability. People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group in the United States.

The attitudes towards − and opportunities available to − people with disabilities have changed dramatically over the past century. People with disabilities and their allies have led the charge to end discrimination and fight for equal rights − we examine the Disability Rights movement. 

A long history of discrimination

The disability rights movement was spurred by a long history of discrimination against people with disabilities. They were often shut out of public life, denied educational and economic opportunities, and seen as less capable than people without disabilities.

People with disabilities were viewed as objects of pity, requiring charity rather than civil rights and accommodations to live independently. Many people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities were institutionalized, and these institutions were often inhumane and neglectful.

In 1887, the journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in an asylum for the mentally ill, exposing abusive conditions and prompting reform. Nearly a century later, investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera’s 1973 exposé highlighted the horrendous conditions at Willowbrook State School, a New York State-funded institution for children with intellectual disabilities that operated from 1930 to 1983.

Along with other minority groups, people with disabilities were targeted by forced sterilization policies in the United States. Discrimination against people with disabilities is unfortunately not over, and the disability rights movement continues to advocate for equitable treatment and equal opportunities.

Early advocacy

Organizations for people with disabilities have existed since the 1800s. In the 1930s, the League of the Physically Handicapped was formed to advocate for access to employment during the Great Depression.

In the 1940s, a psychiatric patient group created We Are Not Alone, which supported patients transitioning from hospitals to living in their communities. President Harry S. Truman created the National Institute of Mental Health in 1948, and between 1960 and 1963, President John F. Kennedy organized committees on the research and treatment of disability.

Several groups joined forces to create the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC) in the 1950s, which is now known as The Arc of the United States. Most of NARC’s members were parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They refused to accept that institutionalization was the only option, and devoted themselves to raising their children at home and providing them with an education.

From pity to power

The passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was an important milestone in the history of the disability rights movement. The Act requires federally-funded programs, activities, and federal employment to be accessible to people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs that receive federal financial assistance.

Four years later, the regulations for Section 504 had not yet been implemented. When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, the disability rights community demanded that he sign and implement the regulations. The president’s new Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Joseph Califano responded by appointing a task force without a representative from the disability community to review the 504 regulations.

The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) demanded that the regulations be signed unchanged by April 5, or ACCD would take action. When that date came and went and the regulations remained unsigned, disability rights advocates across the nation protested by sitting in at federal HEW offices. Sit-ins had been used to great effect during the 1960s civil rights movement, and “demonstrated to the entire nation that disabled people could take control over our own lives and take leadership in the struggle for equality,” according to activist Judith Heumann.

In San Francisco, the protest lasted nearly a month and became the longest sit-in of a federal building in American history. The Section 504 protests worked, and the regulations were finally signed (unchanged) on April 28. According to activist Kitty Cone, the sit-ins were "the public birth of the disability rights movement... For the first time, disability really was looked at as an issue of civil rights rather than an issue of charity and rehabilitation at best, pity at worst."

Section 504 laid important groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act (2008). Between the 1960s and the ADA, Congress passed more than 50 pieces of disability rights legislation, driven largely by the efforts of disability activists.

“Nothing about us without us”

Self-advocates have played a crucial role in disability history. The independent living movement’s philosophy is that people with disabilities should have the same access to opportunities, rights, and autonomy over their lives as their non-disabled counterparts. It represents a shift from the medical model (in which disability is seen as a problem to be fixed) to the social model of disability (in which society’s failure to include and accommodate people with disabilities is the issue).

Ed Roberts is considered to be the father of the independent living movement. Severely disabled after contracting polio as a teenager, Roberts required the use of a respirator to breathe. When he was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley in 1962, the school arranged for him to live in Cowell Memorial Hospital.

With the help of College of San Mateo counselor Jean Wirth, Roberts demanded access to the university. Roberts led a group of students with physical disabilities known as The Rolling Quads, which pressured the university to become more accessible and to provide personal attendant services that would allow disabled students to live independently.

The 1978 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act provided funding for consumer-controlled CILs. Today, there are nearly 400 CILs in the United States, which provide services to people with disabilities in their communities.

Civil rights activist Reverend Wade Black is another important figure in the disability rights movement. He founded the independent living-based Atlantis Community in 1974, which provided community-based personal assistance services to people with disabilities. In 1978, Black and 19 members of the Atlantis Community took a public transit bus “hostage” in Denver to protest barriers to accessible transportation. They founded ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation, later renamed Americans Disabled Attendant Programs Today in 1990, when the organization shifted its focus to ending the institutionalization of people with disabilities against their will).

In 1988, students at Gallaudet University led the week-long “Deaf President Now” protest. Gallaudet University is the only institution of higher learning specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The protestors called for a Deaf president and majority-Deaf Board of Trustees to represent their interests, and their demands were met: Dr. I. King Jordan was named Gallaudet's eighth president, the first Deaf person to hold the position.

The independent living movement and demands for representation encapsulate the ethos behind the disability rights slogan “nothing about us without us.”

The ADA

Lowell P. Weicker, a senator, and parent of a child with a disability is considered to be the “father” of the ADA. He sponsored several pieces of legislation that laid the groundwork for the act and introduced the first version of the ADA in 1988.

On March 12, 1990, protesters came to Washington D.C. to urge Congress to pass the ADA, which had been held up for several months. Transit companies had lobbied against accessibility requirements for passengers with disabilities, delaying the passage of the act.

Protestors with disabilities participated in the “Capitol Crawl,” abandoning their mobility aids and crawling up the capitol’s 83 steps to symbolize the barriers to accessibility they faced. Gallaudet University professor Dr. Jordan said “We’re not asking for any favors… We’re simply asking [for] the same rights and equality any other American has.”

Images of the “Capitol Crawl” spread across the nation. The news highlighted Jennifer Keelan, an eight-year-old girl living with cerebral palsy, who said “I’ll take all night if I have to” as she pulled herself up the steps by her arms.

The protestors’ efforts worked: President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990. At the signing ceremony, the president said “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Looking to the future

The ADA was passed over 30 years ago, and it remains the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in the nation’s history. The government has since enacted several pieces of legislation to encourage access to employment and education for people with disabilities.

Despite significant gains, there is still much to accomplish. People with disabilities continue to face barriers to employment, education, transportation, accessibility, and equal participation in society. The disability rights movement’s efforts to create a more just society for all people is ongoing.

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