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Disability Rights

We are not a tragic minority.  We are a magnificent, triumphant majority. –Justin Dart, Jr.

July 2007: It is an ordinary morning at the Transportation Security Administration’s office. Copiers hum, phones ring, and staff begin their day’s work.  Jason Corning, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student sits down at his desk.  His service dog settles down at his feet.

Jason Corning

Jason is working in Washington, DC through the AAPD summer internship program.  Over the summer, he will prove himself to supervisors, make connections and learn skills that will have value for his career far beyond this summer, and connect with other ambitious young professionals who have disabilities, as he does.  Like any Washington, DC summer intern, Jason took a long path to this job.  He studied hard, participated in extra-curricular activities, secured recommendations from people who believe in him, and put great care into his application.  But Jason’s internship journey didn’t start when he applied, when he got his first “A” in school, or the first time he realized he was interested in politics.  It began when disability rights activists began their long battle to ensure that every person with a disability could have the opportunity to live up to his or her potential.

The following timeline shows some of the critical moments in the history of our movement to achieve Equal Opportunity, Economic Power, Independent Living, and Political Participation for people with disabilities.

Early years

To the generation who grew up with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), our history is alien and unthinkable. For centuries, Americans with disabilities were subjected to forced institutionalization and involuntary (and often ineffective and dangerous) medical treatments. Forced to society’s margins, many people with disabilities were excluded from professions, denied an education, and even prevented from immigrating to the U.S.

 “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.” –Reporter Nelly Bly, 1887, New York.

In 1887, Elizabeth Cochrane Seamen, aka Nellie Bly (1866—1922), a journalist for the New York World, pretended to be insane in order to gain admission to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, New York. She wrote a series of shocking articles for the newspaper as well as a book. She described it as a "human rat-trap" that could drive the sanest people crazy.  Although the public was shocked by such media reports, there were no serious efforts at reform or protection of rights.

During the 1880s the Eugenics movement, which advocated for practices to “improve the genetic composition of the population” passed laws to prevent people with disabilities from moving to the United States, marrying or having children.  Eugenics laws led to the institutionalization and forced sterilization of disabled adults and children.

Even when faced with a hostile culture and without legal protections, people with disabilities have made important contributions to American life for centuries.   Helen Keller, born in Alabama in 1880, is among the most famous.  Deaf and blind from early childhood, Ms. Keller was educated at Radcliffe College and became an author, advocate for people with disabilities and for women’s suffrage, and earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."

-Helen Keller

In 1869, the Columbia Institution—which would later be renamed Gallaudet University—awarded its first diplomas. To this day, students and alumnae of Gallaudet make significant contributions to disability rights advocacy and to society at large.

NYTimes article about First Eugenics Conference

NYTimes article about First Eugenics Conference

Challenges and Changes in the 20th Century

When the 20th Century began, institutionalization and mistreatment of individuals with disabilities was still the norm. The two World Wars—from which thousands of veterans came home with disabilities—brought about challenges but also changes.

After World War I, several laws were enacted recognizing for the first time the country’s obligation to individuals injured in service:

  • The Smith-Hughes Act established the Federal-State Program in vocational education and created a Federal Board of Vocational Education with the authority and responsibility for vocational rehabilitation of disabled veterans.
  • The Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act (also referred to as the Soldier's Rehabilitation Act) expanded the role of the Federal Board of Vocational Education to provide services for vocational rehabilitation of veterans disabled during World War I.
  • In 1920 the Smith-Fess Act (referred to as the Civilian Rehabilitation Act) began the rehabilitation program for all Americans with disabilities patterned after the Soldiers Rehabilitation Act. It established the Federal-State program in rehabilitation and provided funds to states for primarily vocational services, including vocational guidance, training, occupational adjustment, prosthetics, and placement services.

President Warren G. Harding at Walter Reed Hospital, grasping the hand of Lieut. Robert S. Fletcher, who lost both legs during World War I (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

President Warren G. Harding at Walter Reed Hospital, grasping the hand of Lieut. Robert S. Fletcher, who lost both legs during World War I (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

However, despite some advances, civil and human rights violations were still rampant: 

  • During the 1920s there was a rise in sterilization of people with disabilities.  A 1924 Virginia law allowed for sterilization without consent of “feebleminded, insane, depressed, mentally handicapped, epileptic and other.”
  • The U.S Supreme Court upheld the law in its 1927 Buck v. Bell decision.  Twenty-seven other states began sterilization programs.

Carrie Buck

Carrie Buck

  • In 1932, following the success of Dracula, MGM made the movie Freaks with individuals with physical deformities as circus sideshow performers.  The movie shocked audiences and created such backlash that MGM was forced to shut it down.

In 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal economic programs for relief, recovery and reform in response to the Great Depression, Congress passed the Social Security Act, establishing federally funded old-age benefits and funding to states for assistance to blind individuals and disabled children and extending existing vocational rehabilitation programs.

World War II again brought about movement in the disability area.  In Europe, Hitler instituted widespread “mercy killings” of the sick and disabled. At the same time in the U.S. disability advocacy was on the rise:

Nazi euthanasia propaganda poster.

Nazi euthanasia propaganda poster.

Advances of the 1940s

  • In 1940 the National Federation for the Blind formed to advocate for legislative reforms to benefit the blind.  The American Federation of the Physically Handicapped was the first cross-disability national political organization to urge an end to job discrimination and lobby for legislation.
  • The 1943 LaFollette-Barden Vocational Rehabilitation Act added physical rehabilitation to the goals of federally funded VR programs and provided funding for some health care services. 
  • In 1944 Howard Rusk began a rehabilitation program for disabled airmen at the U.S. Army Air Force Convalescent Center.  Rehabilitation medicine became a new medical specialty.
  • The 1946 Hill-Burton Act authorized federal grants to states for the construction of hospitals, public health centers and health facilities for rehabilitation of people with disabilities.
  • The National Mental Health Foundation was founded by conscientious objectors who served as attendants at state mental institutions rather than in the war.  The Foundation exposed the abusive conditions at facilities and became an impetus towards deinstitutionalization.
  • President Truman’s National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week was an impetus for disability rights advocacy activities.
  • In 1947 Paralyzed Veterans of America organized and took a leading role in advocating for disability rights.

The 1950s saw additional incremental progress:

  • Social Security and Vocational Rehabilitation amendments expanded federal funding for people with disabilities.
  • Disability issues became more prominent in government: The President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week became the President’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped, a permanent organization reporting to the President and Congress.
  • The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka striking down school segregation launched the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program was created in 1956 for disabled workers ages 50-64. In 1958 it was extended to dependents of disabled workers.  In 1960 age restrictions were lifted.

During the 1960s there were several advancements in legislation:

  • President Kennedy appointed a special President’s Panel on Mental Retardation.
  • President Kennedy called for the deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities and increase in community services.
  • The 1963 Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Health Centers Construction Act authorized federal grants for construction of public and private nonprofit community mental health centers.

 "We can say with some assurance that, although children may be the victims of fate, they will not be the victims of our neglect." JFK’s Remarks upon signing the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Bill, 10/24/63

  • The 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin and creed, further advancing the Civil Rights Movement.
  • In 1965 Medicare and Medicaid were established through passage of the Social Security Amendments of 1965 to provide federally subsidized health care to disabled and elderly Americans covered by the Social Security program.
  • 1965 Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Amendments authorized federal funds for construction of rehabilitation centers, expansion of existing VR programs and creation of the National Commission on Architectural Barriers to Rehabilitation of the Handicapped.
  • The 1968 Architectural Barriers Act prohibited architectural barriers in all federally owned or leased buildings.

During the 1970s several pieces of legislation addressed disability: 

  • The Urban Mass Transit Act required all new mass transit vehicles be equipped with wheelchair lifts.  However, implementation was delayed for 20 years and regulations were not issued until 1990.
  • The Developmental Disabilities (DD) Services and Facilities Construction Amendments were passed giving the first legal definition of developmental disabilities and authorizing grants for services and facilities for the rehabilitation of people with developmental disabilities and for state DD councils.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was amended to bring all people with disabilities, not just blind individuals, into the sheltered workshop system.
  • The Social Security Amendments of 1972 created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program to relieve families of the financial responsibility of caring for their adult disabled children.
  • In 1973 the Rehabilitation Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination in any programs conducted by federal agencies or receiving federal funds.
  • In 1975 the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which was later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), required free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting.  The Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights Act, Community Services Act and Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act all expanded services for individuals with disabilities.

Several legal advocacy organizations were established and several court cases made advances in the areas of education, transit, and community living: 

  • Notably, in 1974  Halderman V. Pennhurst, a Pennsylvania case,  highlighted conditions at state schools for people with developmental disabilities and established a right to community services. Independent living centers were then started around the country.
  • In 1975 the Supreme Court ruled in O’Connor v. Donaldson that people cannot be institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital against their will unless they are determined to be a threat to themselves or to others.

 “That the State has a proper interest in providing care and assistance to the unfortunate goes without saying. But the mere presence of mental illness does not disqualify a person from preferring his home to the comforts of an institution.”

--Justice Potter Stewart, O’Connor v. Donaldson, 1975

  • In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled on the Rehabilitation Act Section 504, stating that programs receiving federal funds must make reasonable modifications to enable the participation of otherwise qualified disabled individuals, establishing reasonable modification as an important principle in disability rights law.

Also during the 1970s several disability rights organizations formed, including the National Center for Law and the Handicapped, Disability Rights Center, the American Disabled for Public Transit (ADAPT) and the National Center for Law and the Deaf.

  • In 1977, grassroots activists staged nationwide sit-ins at federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW; now called the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS) buildings to pressure the federal government to issue regulations implementing § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Organizers including Judith Heumann led the San Francisco sit-in.  HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signed the regulations on April 28, 1977.  Today, Judith Heumann serves as the Special Advisor for Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State.
  • Across the country, ADAPT members waged direct action campaigns to protect Medicaid services, increase access to housing, and protest inaccessible transportation. ADAPT’s great work continues today.  Through organizing, education, direct action, civil disobedience, and advocacy, ADAPT promotes health care, long-term care and supports, community living, accessibility, fair housing, and other issues that are crucial to people with disabilities.

ADAPT members protest in front of an inaccessible Greyhound bus.

ADAPT members protest in front of an inaccessible Greyhound bus.

During the 1980s, advocates continued to push for increased protections for people with disabilities.

  • Due to concern for the financial stability of the social security program, major amendments were passed in 1983 that terminated many benefits. Disability rights advocates led an intense lobbying and grassroots efforts against terminations.
  • In 1984 the Social Security Disability Reform Act required that payment of benefits and health insurance coverage continue for terminated recipients continued during appeals of continuing disability review (CDR) decisions, which had been implemented under the 1980 amendments.

Several other pieces of legislation were also passed during the 1980s:

  • The 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) authorized the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the conditions of state and government institutions such as prisons, jails, correctional facilities, nursing homes and institutions for people with disabilities and bring a civil suit when there is evidence of harm or violation of constitutional rights or civil rights.
  • The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 mandated that polling places be accessible.

Voter approaches the accessible entrance to a polling place in her wheelchair.

Voter approaches the accessible entrance to a polling place in her wheelchair.

  • In 1986 the Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act allowed recipients of Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance to retain benefits, particularly medical coverage, after they obtain work.
  • The Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act established protection and advocacy agencies for patients of mental health facilities.
  • The Air Carrier Access Act prohibited airlines from refusing to serve people with disabilities and from charging them higher airfares.
  • In 1988 the Civil Rights Restoration Act counteracted restrictive case law by clarifying Congress’ intention that the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination in any part of any program or service that receives federal funding – not just the part that directly receives the funding.
  • In 1988 the Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibited discrimination in housing against people with disabilities and provided requirements for architectural accessibility.
  • The Technology-Related Assistance Act for Individuals with Disabilities was passed authorizing federal funding to state projects designed to facilitate access to assistive technology.

The Supreme Court decided several cases protecting the rights of students with disabilities.  It also ruled in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center that localities cannot use zoning laws to prohibit group homes in residential areas.

In 1988, the “Deaf President Now” protest was held at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  As a result, I. King Jordan became the first deaf president of the University.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

During the 1980s, advocates across our country pushed for legislation to protect the rights of people with disabilities.  Justin Dart, Jr. was a prominent figure in this movement. President Reagan appointed him vice-chair of the National Council on Disability in 1981.  Dart and others on the Council drafted a national policy that called for national civil rights legislation to end the centuries old discrimination of people with disabilities.

For years, our community advocated tirelessly for full civil rights for people with disabilities.  One powerful example of passionate activism was when members of our community hauled themselves up the Capitol steps to demonstrate the tangible, inexcusable barriers that stood in the way of our right to petition our government for redress.  That declaration was a crucial moment in passing the ADA- a bipartisan law that would change our landscape. On July 26, 1990 President Bush signed into law the ADA
.  Thanks to advocates such as Justin Dart, Jr. and his wife Yoshiko, Robert Silverstein, Robert Burgdorf, Patrisha Wright, Tony Coelho, Fred Fay and Judith Heumann, among many others, a vision for people with disabilities became a reality.

In 1995, Becky Ogle, Fred Fay, Yoshiko Dart, Justin Dart, and Pat Wright organized the Justice for All listserv to share disability news as a call to action to advocates across the country to defend and protect disability rights and disability programs.

 The Justice for All e-newsletter still reaches thousands of people every Friday.  Follow this link to sign up or connect on social media.

On July 25, 1995, for the 5th anniversary of passage of the ADA, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) was launched to unite the diverse community of people with disabilities, including our families, friends and supporters, and to be a national voice for change in implementing the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also during the 1990s, the 1993 National Voting Registration Act (the “Motor Voter Act”) was passed in order to make it easier for people with disabilities and other minorities to register to vote.  The Motor Voter Act requires all state-funded agencies that primarily provide services to people with disabilities to provide all program applicants with voter registration forms and assist them with completing registration.

Into the 21st Century

Since passage of the ADA, advocacy efforts of the disability rights movement have continue to focus on rigorous enforcement of the ADA, as well as accessibility for people with disabilities in employment, technology, education, housing, transportation, healthcare, and independent living for people with disabilities.

Key disability rights legislation and policies since the ADA include:

  • Congress amended the ADA in 2008 to restore the civil rights of Americans with disabilities and overturn four Supreme Court decisions that had inappropriately narrowed the protections of the ADA.  The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, signed by President Bush on September 25, 2008, emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis.
  • On October 8, 2010 President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) to update the Communications Act and expand safeguards and accessibility in communications for people with disabilities.  The CVAA resulted from advocacy efforts of AAPD and other leading disability organizations such as National Association of the Deaf, American Council of the Blind, Communication Services for the Deaf, Hearing Loss Association of America, American Foundation for the Blind, and others.
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) enacted in March 2010 is the health care reform law that makes major changes to current health care and insurance and includes many provisions that will affect people with disabilities.  It addresses accessibility and nondiscrimination, affordability, coverage, home and community-based services, equipment, training and data collection and Medicaid.

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law.

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law.

  • In December of 2011, President Obama and the U.S. Labor Department issued a proposed rule that would require federal contractors to set goals that 7% of their work forces be individuals with disabilities.  The Proposed rule would implement Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires federal contractors to promote employment opportunity for people with disabilities. Although Section 503 was enacted almost 40 years ago, it has never been enforced or clarified to the extent necessary, requiring employers only to make a “good faith” effort to hire people with disabilities.

For more information on federal disability rights legislation, visit our What We Do section.

Disability rights have also made important advances in the international sphere, where they are now considered human rights.  In December of 2006 the United Nations General Assembly passed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which came into force on May 3, 2008.  The CRPD is one of the nine human rights treaties of the United Nations and signifies a change in the perception of people with disabilities as objects of charity and protection to individuals who have rights that must be respected and guaranteed by states.  AAPD is working alongside our coalition allies, supporters, and millions of people around the world in support of ratification.  On July 26, 2012—the 22nd anniversary of the ADA—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to send the CRPD to the Senate Floor.  Follow this link to contact your senators and urge them to support CRPD.

The disability rights movement has made great progress.  AAPD proudly embraces these achievements but also recognizes that we face challenges ahead.  Over 50 million Americans with disabilities, along with our families and supporters, are continuing to work on the unfinished business of full access to American opportunity.  We have a solid track record already, but there is much to be done.  AAPD will continue to work with the disability community to ensure the economic and political empowerment and independent living of people with disabilities.

Postscript:  2007 AAPD intern Jason Corning is now employed in the defense field and working toward his MBA. AAPD celebrates his accomplishments along with the contributions of our community and supporters.  We believe that it is our responsibility to build upon the work that paved the way for our own success, and to do all we can to pave the way for everyone traveling the road to EQUAL OPPORTUNITY, ECONOMIC POWER, INDEPENDENT LIVING, and POLITICAL PARTICIPATION for people with disabilities.

Civil rights history is not written by one person or one organization.  It would be impossible to describe the contributions made by thousands of individuals and organizations in one short essay.  Civil rights are also personal.  For every nationally-televised protests, there are thousands of civil rights struggles and victories all over this world every single day.  Please share your disability rights stories—whether from your own experience or from our shared history—so that we may build this website to reflect more of the achievements and struggles of the past, present, and future.

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