How The Fight Against Racism Paved the Way for the ADA

Published August 6, 2022

In 2020, the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 30th anniversary. In the past three decades, the country has made significant strides to become more inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. However, the fight to create the ADA and similar anti-discrimination laws before it wasn’t easy. It called for several decades of civil rights activism and tireless protests to make lawmakers pay attention.

As anti-segregationists were marching from Selma and facing slurs and beatings at lunch counters, Americans with disabilities were also risking their lives to fight for their rights. Here’s how activists like Jon Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped inspire disability protests like the Section 504 sit-ins and activists like the Gang of 19.

The 1960s: Small protests become national movements

The late 1950s and early 1960s marked a period of change in America. The tide started to turn against racism and people took to the streets to stand up for their rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in public schools through Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956, black Americans walked to work in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1960, four black students sat down at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina to eat lunch, defying segregation.

As the fight to end segregation wore on, the protests grew larger, but the aggressors against them turned violent. Many living activists still participated in Bloody Sunday in 1965, when 600 peaceful marchers in Selma were attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In his graphic novel series March, Jon Lewis shares his experiences from this time – including how he was frequently hit, attacked, and called every racial slur the segregationists could think of.

The protests in the 1960s into the 1970s weren’t limited to civil rights issues. Other groups of Americans took to the streets to call on the government to end the Vietnam War. LGBTQ activism was forever changed because of the Stonewall riots in 1969. And Americans for disabilities called for an end to discrimination in protests of their own.

The Civil Rights Act laid the foundation for other discrimination legislation

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. This states that no American can experience segregation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, or sex. While this act was monumental for many Americans, it excluded others. People with disabilities weren’t included in this act until 1988. For the first two decades of its existence, the Civil Rights Act didn’t change much for Americans with disabilities.

In 1973, Congress took action to protect Americans with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act was passed to protect veterans who were returning from Vietnam. Many soldiers returned with injuries and disabilities, only to discover that their world was much more limited. In particular, Section 504 was the first civil rights protection for people with disabilities. This was huge – at least, it was supposed to be.

Accessibility protestors found allies in anti-racism activists

Unfortunately, the passing of Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act didn’t provide any meaningful changes for Americans with disabilities. Congress passed the legislation but it wasn’t actively taking steps to make sure these laws were followed. Americans with disabilities waited for years for the federal government to take action on Section 504, but nothing happened. It was time to act.

On April 5, 1977, protestors across the country occupied federal offices to urge their representatives to implement and properly fund Section 504. Many activists thought this protest would last a few hours – and most of them did – but one group of protestors stayed on.

In San Francisco, more than 100 protestors, interpreters, and aids arrived at the regional H.E.W. office. The regional director had never heard of Section 504 and didn’t know what the activists wanted, and so they stayed there until federal leadership was ready to provide a solution.

They stayed for almost a month. It was one of the longest occupations of a federal building in American history.

The federal government cut phone lines and the water supply to the building, but the mayor of San Francisco sent mattresses and portable showers. Members of the Black Panther Party and Gray Panthers brought in supplies and cooked meals, some even joined the protestors.

On April 28, 1977, the law was implemented. The protestors won. They stayed two more days to clean up the building before leaving.

Protesters used similar tactics as other civil rights groups

In many ways, the protests of the 1960s against racism and segregation created a blueprint for future groups to make themselves known. Protests were developed so members of the disabled community could be visible and so others could see them and join in their fight.

Another notable protest comes from the Gang of 19. On July 5, 1978, 19 people entered one of the busiest intersections in Denver. They got out of their wheelchairs and laid down to stop traffic. This was in protest of the city’s new public transit system, which had debuted without wheelchair lifts and other accessible features.

The protest lead to the creation of the American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, a grass-roots community that organizes disabled rights actions in non-violent manners.

These protests formed when government bodies refused to listen. Many activists had worked with the local and federal government on issues like accessible transit, only to have their pleas ignored. As a result, the activists had no choice but to disrupt to be seen.

Activists continued to push for protections

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, people with disabilities continued to lobby for protection and inclusion in American society. Lowel P. Weicker, Jr., a senator for Connecticut, was elected to office in 1971. He is widely regarded as the Father of the ADA and spent his time in office proposing multiple pieces of legislation to protect and support the disabled community.

Weicker introduced the first draft of the ADA in 1988. In 1990, the act finally passed and was signed into law by George H. W. Bush. To this day, the ADA is considered the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. It guarantees unrestricted access to public buildings, equal employment, and fair access to government services. The ADA laid the foundation for all other laws and guidelines to include Americans with disabilities in modern society.

This law wouldn’t have passed without the tireless work of countless activists, protestors, and Americans who pushed their legislatures to support accessibility. It took decades of work and multiple disability movements to receive these basic human rights.

Disability Advocates Keep Fighting Today

One of the most important things to remember when looking at accessibility through a civil rights lens is that disability discrimination did not stop after the ADA. While this law has been in place for 30 years, many activists are still fighting to be treated as equals and to change how people approach disability.

In 2019, more than 80 protestors were arrested on Capitol Hill while calling for more community-based services and adequate funding for Medicaid. In 2018, 10 individuals were arrested for unlawful protesting in the Capitol when trying to speak out against changes to the ADA.

As long as governing bodies continue to ignore or create barriers for people with disabilities to function as equals in society, there will be voices speaking up – refusing to be left behind.

To learn more about the history of disability rights, visit our timeline, which covers American events from 1776 to the present day. You can also follow our news briefs to better understand the discrimination faced by people with disabilities and how they continue to fight for fair access in their communities.

AccessibilityPlus2022 is proud of our role in promoting accessibility and equal access while recognizing there is much work to be done. As we welcome a new year in 2022, we have opened registration for AccessibilityPlus 2022, which will feature monthly events dedicated to promoting actionable solutions in implementing accessibility initiatives. Registration is limited. For more information about the conference, speakers, and topics, please visit our AccessibilityPlus registration page.

Registration for our first annual event, Are You Next? Trends in Digital Accessibility Lawsuits, is now available at no cost for viewers for a limited time.  

AccessibilityPlus 2022 is proud of our role in promoting digital accessibility and equal access for all while recognizing there is much work to be done. As we welcome a new year in 2022, we have opened registration for AccessibilityPlus 2022, which will feature events dedicated to promoting actionable solutions in implementing digital accessibility initiatives. Registration is limited. For more information about the conference, speakers, and topics, please visit our AccessibilityPlus Event Calendar.

Registrations for our August event Add to Cart: Creating an Accessible e-Commerce Experience are now available at no cost for viewers for a limited time.