This year marks a significant milestone in the fight for the rights of all Americans with disabilities. The disability community has seen modifications to the built environment, increased access to affordable healthcare and an uptick in political participation in the last 31 years. However, the work to create an inclusive society began long before, and extends beyond, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Explore key milestones in the disabilities rights movement below:
Polio and Progress
In the late 1940s, polio outbreaks in the United States increased in frequency and size, disabling more than 35,000 people each year. These outbreaks, coupled with the return home of disabled service members from World War II, drastically changed the landscape of the disability community in the United States. Although disability was highly stigmatized at this time, there was also a greater push for inclusion of disabled children in schools, social, community, and sports organizations, and the federal government began initiatives like “Hire the Handicapped Week,” now, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, to increase the employment and economic self-sufficiency of the disability community. During this time, racial segregation shaped the outcomes of polio survivors. Black polio survivors had limited treatment options and fought the perception that Black people were less susceptible to the virus.
Protesting and Power
The growth of the civil rights movement in the 1960s elevated public appreciation for the power of protest and political organizing. Members of the disability community took note and employed similar tactics of protest to advance disability rights. As Black people fought for integration of businesses and places of public accommodation, President John F. Kennedy called for a reduction in the institutionalization of people with disabilities. This call was further amplified by the publication of Christmas in Purgatory, which shed a light on the unjust conditions in state. There was also a greater realization of the barriers created by the built environment, which led to the creation of the barrier free standard. This became the standard for accessibility in many building codes. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act became law and in addition to protecting the right to vote for minorities, it allowed people with disabilities to receive accommodations at the polls.
Independent Living Movement
After experiencing discrimination, fighting for self-determination, and establishing the Physically Disabled Students Center at the University of California Berkeley, Ed Roberts, Hale Zukas, Jan McEwan Brown, John Hessler, Phil Draper and Dick Santos joined forces to lead a movement that made university life accessible to all. In 1972, these students and community members joined together to form The Center for Independent Living, Inc. Since the formation of the first Center for Independent Living (CIL), the independent living movement and associated CILs have spread across the United States and around the world. The independent living movement was founded on the principle that people with disabilities are the best experts on their needs, and therefore they must take initiative, individually and collectively, in designing and promoting better solutions and must organize themselves for political power. In addition to promoting greater self-representation, the independent living movement fought for de-medicalization and deinstitutionalization of disabled people. Among the victories of the independent living movement, disability advocates organized the 504 protests. Through cross-disability organizing and support from other civil rights allies, the 504 sit-ins resulted in the longest occupation of a federal building in United States history and led to the finalization of the 504 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability for any entity that receives federal funds.
As of the early 1970s, United States public schools accommodated 1 out of 5 children with disabilities. Until that time, many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities from attending public school. At the time, 3.5 million disabled children attended school but were “warehoused” in segregated facilities and received little or no effective instruction. Schools were not only segregated on the basis of disability, and often the type of disability, but also by race. Many children who lived in institutions had no access to education or other supports. Congress then enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, which required that schools place students within the least restrictive environment and one that allows for integration with non-disabled students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) replaced this law in 1990. IDEA required that education and special education services be designed to meet the individual needs of students and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. It also required that schools provide each disabled student an education that access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children.
Deaf President Now
In March 1988, Gallaudet University, the only university in the world for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students, experienced a watershed event that led to the appointment of the 124-year-old university’s first deaf president. At the announcement of the retirement of the current Gallaudet President, Gallaudet students, alumni, faculty, and staff, engaged in a letter-writing campaign, which received support from leaders across the country, from Jesse Jackson to President George H.W. Bush. Thousands of students began organizing rallies around the Gallaudet campus. After a week of rallies, when the Board of Trustees announced a hearing person as president of the university, students marched from Gallaudet to the White House and proceeded to organize a series of rallies which shut down campus for a week. After all of this direct action and protest that became known as Deaf President Now (DPN), the Board of Trustees announced that I. King Jordan would be the first Deaf President of Gallaudet. Deaf President Now has become synonymous with self-determination and empowerment for deaf and hard of hearing people everywhere.
Americans with Disabilities Act
July 26, 1990
Despite significant progress in disability rights and improved accessibility and inclusion with transportation, schools, housing and federal programs, there were no comprehensive civil rights protections for disabled people in the United States until the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. The ADA is based on a basic presumption that people with disabilities want to work and are capable of working, want to be members of their communities and are capable of being members of their communities, and that exclusion and segregation cannot be tolerated. The passage of the ADA prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunication – accommodating a person with a disability was no longer a matter of charity, but instead a basic issue of civil rights. The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in one of the largest signing ceremonies in United States history. With the ADA signed, people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children. Local groups to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities were established, and the independent living movement, which challenged the notion that people with disabilities needed to be institutionalized, fought for and provided services for people with disabilities to live in the community.
June 22, 1999
Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who had a mental illness and developmental disabilities, were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit in the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. Following the women’s medical treatment in the hospital, mental health professionals stated that each was ready to move to a community-based program. However, the women remained confined in the institution for several years after the initial treatment was concluded. They filed suit under the ADA for release from the hospital. On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court ruled that involuntary institutionalization of disabled people was discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This decision stated that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities.
Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act
September 25, 2008
A series of Supreme Court decisions led to the protections of the ADA being restricted and weakened, which ultimately limited the rights of people with disabilities. Sutton v. United Air and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams narrowed the definition of “disability” and only people with severe disabilities qualified for protection under the ADA. A coalition of disability rights organizations created a strategy and developed a new bill that would bring clarity to and broaden the definition. Advocates from the business and disability communities worked with many of the original legislative champions of the ADA and spearheaded efforts to pass the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADAAA overturned the previous Supreme Court decisions and expanded the definition of disability and further stated that disability shall be defined broadly to the maximum extent possible by the law.
Affordable Care Act
March 23, 2010
Despite the significant improvements in accessibility created by the ADA, people with disabilities experienced significant discrimination in healthcare. People with disabilities who were not covered by Medicaid or Medicare experienced barriers to accessible health insurance coverage because insurance providers could reject people with pre-existing conditions. Insurance providers could also charge people with disabilities large amounts and limit access to employer-based insurance options. Because of the Affordable Care Act, young adults can now remain on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26. Insurers cannot discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions by denying coverage, charging higher premiums, or refusing to cover care related to those conditions. Insurers are not allowed to impose lifetime or annual dollar limits. People with incomes of up to 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are eligible for subsidies to purchase health coverage. All plans are required to cover certain minimum benefits. Medicaid was expanded in 32 states in addition to the District of Columbia. There are countless other provisions in the ACA that are important to people with disabilities. The ACA has unquestionably improved access to care for people with disabilities and chronic conditions to help them live healthy, independent, and fulfilling lives. Since its passage, there have been many attempts to overturn the ACA and undercut its provisions, and at each of these attempts, the disability community has organized and advocated for the ACA to remain in place.
Technology, the Gig, and App Economy
Today, the use of technology and the gig economy across industries create new opportunities and barriers for the disability community. Advances in technology, web-based systems, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, 5G technology, and “smart” states and cities can provide for new ways of navigation, access to services, and employment. But development of these new tools often outpaces the development of accessibility standards, and disabled people are frequently excluded from enjoying the benefits of these tools. The rise in the gig economy creates new flexible employment options for people with disabilities but also creates major questions and concerns regarding these issues include worker classification, civil rights and worker protections, portable benefits, informed choice of worker status and data collection. Research on these emerging technologies reveals algorithms, artificial intelligence, and other technologies can replicate and increase biases around gender, race, disability, and other identities. Understanding these shifts and how they interact with and influence each other is among the key policy and civil rights decisions of the next 30 years.
Championing Disability Rights in 2021 and Beyond
There is still work to be done. We will continue the disability rights movement with a focus on:
Celebrating disability and empowering people with disabilities to lead and advocate for their diverse needs.
Advocating for the right for people with disabilities to live in their homes and communities by providing accessible and equitable transportation and housing.
Strengthening infrastructure in the wake of COVID-19 to ensure people with disabilities have control over their healthcare decisions and equal access to quality, affordable, and comprehensive care — especially disabled people of color.
Eliminating systemic, discriminatory practices that create barriers to community integration, economic opportunity, and self-empowerment.
Removing obstructions to political participation for people with disabilities.