Timeline of Disability Rights in the United States

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects 56.3 million Americans from discrimination in all areas of life, including work, school and transportation; but it didn't just start 30 years ago....
  1. 1776

    • Act to Provide for the Settlement: After the Revolution War, soldiers who suffered significant injuries were financially subsidized by the first pension law which paid for half pay.
  2. 1817

    • American School for the Deaf: Founded in Hartford, CT, this was the first school for children with disabilities anywhere in the western hemisphere.
  3. 1864

    • Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind: Under President Abraham Lincoln, the bill was signed into law for the first college in the world to accept people with disabilities, the Gallaudet University (university for only disabled).
  4. 1880

    • National Association of the Deaf: Founded in Cincinnati, OH as a non-profit to advocate for deaf rights (now headquartered in Silver Spring, MD)
  5. 1918

    • Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act: This Act became a law to provide employment assistance for people with disablilities who were discharged from the U.S. military after returning from battle.
  6. 1920

    • The Smith-Fess Act: Also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, this established a federal program to provide vocational assistance to Americans with physical disabilities through guidance, training, occupational services and job placement.
  7. 1935

    • League of the Physically Handicapped: This group formed a protest at the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB) to demonstrate job discrimination that people with disabilities were facing. This group started as only 6 people who began the 9-day sit-in and it quickly grew. The League eventually led to the creation of 1,500 jobs in NYC.
    • Social Security Act: The Social Security Act was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to provide payment of benefits to people with disabilities who contributed to the Social Security through taxation on their earnings.
  8. 1936

    • Randolph-Sheppard Act: This was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enhance employment opportunities for people with visual disabilities . This Act authorized them to be able to operate vending facilities on federal property and research other types of work they could be capable of.
  9. 1938

    • Fair Labor Standards Act Section 14C: Fair and equal wages to be paid to people with disabilities based on prevailing wages.
    • Wagner-O'Day Act: This required all federal agencies to purchase specified products made by people who had visual disabilities and later expanded to include people with significant disabilities. In 2006, the program was renamed AbilityOne.
  10. 1940

    • National Federation of the Blind: This was formed to advocate for "white cane laws" to promote reform for those visually impaired.
    • American Federation of the Physically Handicapped:This was the first national organization to urge an end to job discrimination; which later resulted in the National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week (the first week in October).
  11. 1943

    • Barden-Lafollette Act: This act expanded vocational rehabilitation services to people with mental and visual disabilities.
  12. 1945

    • National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week: Supporting service members with disabilities from World War II, Congress establishes the first week of October to pay tribute to the accomplishments of people with disabilities in the workforce. In 1988, it was extended to the full month of October and renamed National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
  13. 1946

    • National Mental Health Act: President Truman signed this Act which established the National Institute of Mental Health, responsible for the biomedical and health-related research.
  14. 1950

    • National Barrier-Free Standards:This was a combination of the U.S. Veterans Administration, the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and National Easter Seals Society, and more, to develop the national standards for "barrier-free" buildings for people with disabilities to be able to access.
  15. 1954

    • Vocational Rehabilitation Amendment of 1954: Targeting people who could return to work with assistance; but had intellectual disabilities, this amendment helped thousands of people obtain employment and funded more than 100 university-based rehabilitation programs. Later it contributed to funding for research, which lead into the creation of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
  16. 1960

    • National Association for Down Syndrome (NADS): Founded in Chicago in 1960 by Kay McGee after her daughter Tricia was born with Down syndrome, NADS is the oldest organization in the United States serving children and adults with Down syndrome and their families.
  17. 1961

    • Panel of Mental Retardation: President John F. Kennedy created the President's Panel on Mental Retardation to address the needs of people with intellectual disabilities and their rights to be part of everyday life. The Panel's goals included training in academic, vocational and social skills. President George W. Bush renamed the committee to the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
  18. 1963

    • Mental Retardation Facilities and Construction Act: To plan activities and construct facilities to provide services to persons with intellectual disabilities.
  19. 1964

    • Civil Rights Act of 1964: This was the first Act that outlawed discrimination and segregation based on race, color, religion, or sex. It wasn't until 1988 that people with disabilities were included.
  20. 1964

    • White Cane Awareness Day: The National Federation of the Blind became a leader in fighting for the rights for people with visually disabilities. From its pioneering independence of the visually impaired, October 15 of each year is designated to celebrate the achievements of people who are blind or visually impaired. The name of this day reflects the important symbol of their tool of independence, the white cane.
    • Urban Mass Transportation Act: This law established that all mass transit vehicles be equipped with a wheelchair lift.
  21. 1965

    • Medicare and Medicaid: Established through the Social Security Amendments of 1965, government provides federally subsidized health care to the disabled and elderly Americans.
    • Voting Rights Act: People with disabilities are able to have assistance in voting in elections.
    • Vocational Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1965: Extending benefits of the Act of 1954; but also, including funding for people with behavioral disorders.
    • Higher Education Act of 1965: Providing financial assistance for people with physical disabilities entering college or university.
  22. 1968

    • Fair Housing Act: This Act expanded on Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is also referred to as the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This Act was extended after African American veterans found discriminated against when finding housing. It was not expected to pass; but the day of the vote, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and racial riots were taking place around the country. President Lyndon B. Johnson pressured Congress to pass the new legislation. Johnson viewed the Act as a fitting memorial to the man's life work. It wasn't until 1988 people with disabilities were included.
    • Special Olympics: The first International Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago, Illinois. Originally, it was started in 1962 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver out of growing up playing sports with her sister, who had a intellectual disability. She hosted the first few years at a summer camp (Camp Shriver).
  23. 1971

    • The First National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired: First time debuting two possible technologies for captioning television programs. Both technologies displayed the captions only on specially equipped sets for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
  24. 1972

    • Independent Living Movement: Ed Roberts and U.CA Berkeley students founded the Berkeley Center for Independent Living for the advocacy and services for people with disabilities to live free and independent lives. In the Rehabilitation Act Amendment of 1978 included grant funding to support the program. There is now over 400 Centers for Independent Living in the U.S.
  25. 1973

    • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504): Section 504 was the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities that they can not be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance such as hospital, schools, welfare and government offices. This also extended to additional sections such as hiring by the government (Section 501) or subcontractors of the government (Section 503), and transportation and building accessibility (Section 502),
  26. 1975

    • Developmental Disability Assistance and Bill of Rights Act: People with developmental disabilities have a right to appropriate treatment, services, and rehabilitation in the least restrictive setting that maximizes developmental potential. It further specifies funds would not be provided to any residential program that does not meet the minimum standards for nutritious diet, medical and dental services, prohibition of physical restraints, visiting rights for relatives, and compliance with fire and safety. In 1978,case management services, child developmental services, alternative community living arrangement services, and nonvocational social-developmental services were added.
    • Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975: This act required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide access to education for children with physical and mental disabilities. Public schools were required create an educational plan with parent's input that closely mirrors the educational experience of non-disabled students. It is now referred as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
    • American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities: First leading national cross-disability rights organization, governed and administered by people with disabilities.
  27. 1977

    • 504 Sit-In: Between 1973 and 1977, people with disabilities fought to have regulations in Section 504 more concisely define and published. There was much delay by the government even after the disability community filed a lawsuit in federal court. The court ruled that they must be issued; but not when. Major demonstrations in 10 U.S. cities lasting 28 days (San Francisco, CA) were organized to voice their rights.
    • White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals: 3,000 people with disabilities discuss federal policy and acted as a catalyst for grassroots disability rights organizing.
  28. 1978

    • Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978:The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978 established the first federal funding for independent living centers and created the National Council of the Handicapped under the U.S. Department of Education.
    • "Try Another Way": "Try Another Way" pioneered to teach people with intellectual disabilities to perform complex tasks. This provided the foundation for the Supported Employment model which helps them to participate in the competitive job market.
  29. 1979

    • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF): DREDF is a national cross-disability civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities.
  30. 1980

    • Father of the ADA: CT Senator Lowel P. Weicker, Jr. (1971-1989) advocated for disability rights and is widely regarded as the original "father" of the ADA. During his service, Weicker sponsored numerous pieces of legislation that laid the foundation for the ADA. Weicker introduced the first version of ADA in 1988.
    • Civil Rights of Institutionalized Person Act: This allows people with disabilities can file civil suits in the U.S. Justice Dept. if their rights were being violated.
  31. 1982

    • Telecommunications for the Disable Act: This became law in the U.S. making it mandatory for public phones to be accessible to the hearing impaired.
    • Job Training Partnership Act of 1982: This Act established federal assistance to prepare youth and unskilled adults, who have disabilities, to enter into the labor force.
  32. 1984

    • Reagan Administration: A set back but a gain. The Reagan administration tired to revoke or weaken Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. It was met with opposition from the community, which their campaign generated more than 40,000 cards and letters. The administration was successful in terminating Social Security benefits of hundreds of thousands of disabled recipients instead.
  33. 1985

    • Mental Illness Bill of Rights Act: This Act became law that it requires states to provide protection and advocacy for people with psychological disabilities.
  34. 1986

    • Toward Independence: National Council on Disability (NCD), issued a report on their research they named, Towards Independence, where the Council examined incentives and disincentives in federal laws towards increasing the independence of people with disabilities and noting the large gaps in in their civil rights.
    • Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act of 1986: The EODAA enhances work incentives for people with disabilities under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program; which provides special SSI payments and Medicaid coverage while eligible individuals with disabilities make attempts to work.
  35. 1988

    • On the Threshold of Independence: National Council on Disability issued its report On the Threshold of Independence with data acquired from Towards Independence. Towards Independence assessed the status of person with disabilities and the Federal Laws where On the Threshold of Independence described the accomplishments that have been achieved in response the recommendations in the Threshold of Independence report.
    • Fair Housing Act: This was amended to protect people with disabilities from housing discrimination, modifications to existing buildings and outlined accessibility to newly constructed housing units. This expanded the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
    • Preliminary version of ADA: Original version of the ADA was introduced by Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. which laid the foundation for its passing in 1990.
  36. 1990

    • Disability Pride Parade: Held in Boston, this was the first active group to bring awareness to people with disabilities who identify themselves in the LGBTQ community. The next one held wasn't until 2004 in Chicago.
    • Capital Crawl of 1990: In Washington, D.C., 60 activists with disabilities climbed out of their wheelchairs and up the 83 steps of the Capitol to protest to their rights not being protected.
    • Americans with Disabilities Act: Modeled after the Civil Rights Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law by, on July 26, 1990. The collective efforts of decades of advocacy passes the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. The law guarantees Americans with Disabilities unrestricted access to public buildings, equal opportunity in employment, equal access to government services and employment opportunities. The ADA is an "equal opportunity" law for people with disabilities.
    • Closed Caption: The Television Decoder Circuitry Act mandated that all new television sets 13 inches or larger manufactured for sale in the U.S. contain caption-decoding technology.
  37. 1991

    • Regulations Issued: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) where added to enforced the ADA.
  38. 1992

    • California Hosts First Youth Leadership Forum: The California Governor’s Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons holds the first Youth Leadership Forum for youths with disabilities. This program is later funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to mirror in other states with the goal of delivering the message of the importance of youth leadership. By 2007, 23 states host these forums.
    • U.S. Business Leadership Network: Born out of the growing number of businesses recognizing disability as an important part of diversity, it promotes workplace inclusion.
    • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Business with employees 25 or more had to adhere to the ADA regulations – enforced by the enforced by the EEOC.
  39. 1995

    • Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP): Started in the 70's in the Navy and expanded in 1995, WRP for College Students with Disabilities was established in accordance with the U.S. Dept. of Labor and Defense. It is designed as a referral program for making connections with public and private organizations with recent graduates with disabilities who are highly motivated to prove their talents and skills.
  40. 1996

    • Telecommunications Act: The first revision of the telecommunication law was 1930's (telegraphs, telephones and radio), but President Bill Clinton signed this Act which requires telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to ensure equipment is designed, developed and made to be accessible to all. During the signing, Clinton expressed technology's growing influence on all aspects of life, including employment; opening the idea of digital accessibility.
    • Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA):Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), enforcing that people with disabilities would receive consistent and nondiscriminatory treatment when traveling by air.
    • Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996:This opportunity for small business provides a federal tax credit to companies that hire workers with disabilities through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC).
    • Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 (MHPA): President Bill Clinton signs the MHPA; which requires group health plans and health insurance agents to provide annual or lifetime dollars limits on mental health benefits in companies 50 employees or more.
  41. 1998

    • Veterans Programs Enhancement Act: Put into law, it required a cost-of-living adjustment for veterans with service-connected disabilities.
    • Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities: President Bill Clinton assembles a committee to evaluate existing federal programs to determine if there should be changes, modification and future needs for adults with disabilities seeking employment.
    • Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA): Overall this Act was created to integrate various federal education, training and employment services for job seekers and employers.
    • Section 508: An amendment to the Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, it requires federal organizations to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities that is equal to an employee without disabilities.
  42. 2004

    • Special Olympics: President George W. Bush signed into law the "Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act," funding the bill: Healthy Athletes, Education and Worldwide Expansion program.
    • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was amended and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This permanently authorized a grant program that provides federal funding to states to offer a "free, appropriate public education" to all children with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment."
  43. 2008

    • ADA Amendment of 2008:ADA Amendment was based around broadening the interpretation of the term "disability," rather than accepting the previous narrow interpretation.
    • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008: This Act prohibits health plans and health insurers from denying coverage to healthy individual or changing to higher premiums based on genetic predisposition. The Act also protects discrimination against people with disabilities, making it illegal in any aspect of when employers hire, fire, job placement and promotions.
  44. 2009

    • Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act: This Act is the first piece of comprehensive legislation aimed at improving the lives of Americans living with paralysis. It created new coordinated effort towards research through the National Institutes of Health to search for a cure for paralysis and promotes enhanced rehabilitation services.
    • Disability Employment Statistics: U.S. Dept. of Labor's bureau of Labor Statistics adds disability to the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS), making it the first time that government officially collects data on the employment status of people with disabilities.
    • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA): President Barack Obama signs the ARRA which increased funding for individuals through the Disabilities Education Act. The funds provided $500 million in vocational rehabilitation services including job training, education and placement.
    • National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Originally started in 1945 as the first week of October and later extended to the full month, the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy funded a campaign to promote a positive message and image to recognize the value and skills of people with disabilities in the workforce. The campaign spotlighted a public service campaign around the tagline "I Can;" which gained a lot of traction in the media.
  45. 2010

    • Executive Order 13548: In recognizing the 20th anniversary of the ADA, President Barack Obama signs executive order to increase Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities around recruitment, hiring and retention of people with disabilities.
    • ADA Standards for Accessible Design: U.S. Dept. of Justice revises regulations for Titles II and III, which set minimum requirements for newly designed, altered state and local government facilities, public accommodations and commercial facilities to be accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.
    • Disability Employment Initiative: U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy and Employment and Training Administration jointly fund the Disability Employment Initiative which focused on 9 states to improve education, training and employment opportunities for youth and adults receiving social security benefits.
    • 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act:President Barack Obama brought the ADA into the 21st century to include new digital, broadband and mobile innovations. The law governs everything that is broadcasted or used for communication is to be accessible for everyone.
  46. 2011

    • White Cane Safety Day:Established in 1964 to bring awareness to people with visibility impairment, was renamed Blind Americans Equality Day.
  47. 2012

    • Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD): GAAD was established to reach out to creators of digital products (developers, designers or product innovators) and inspire them to make products accessible for all.
    • World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD): United Nations officially observes WDSD to bring awareness to triplication (trisomy) of the 21st chromosome; which causes Down syndrome. It is observed on March 21st (3/21) of each year. The date symbolizes the three copies of the chromosome 21.
  48. 2013

    • Department of Transportation: Airline website pages, which have core travel information and services, must be accessible by 2015 and all pages on airline websites must must be readily available to people with disabilities by 2016. This also included airport kiosks to access boarding tickets and how planes handle wheelchairs.
  49. 2014

    • Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act: U.S. Dept. of Labor's Office Contract Compliance Program updates 503 regulation which prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment against people with disabilities and to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote and retain people with disabilities.
    • The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014: This provides a comprehensive change to a number of employment and education-related programs, including services for people with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities.
    • Achieving Better Life Experience Act (ABLE): ABLE improved financial stability and employment options for people with disabilities by authorizing tax-advantaged savings accounts for youth and adults with disabilities.
  50. 2020

    • Electric Shock Devices: The Electric shock devices were used to interrupt self-injurious or aggressive behavior in autism and other developmental disabilities. FDA banned use as evidence of the device's effectiveness was weak.
    • July 26, 2020: Marks the 30 year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the launch of Accessibility.com.