A Short History of the Disability Rights Movement in the US

People in Wheelchairs Demonstrate
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According to the , there are 56.7 million people with disabilities in the U.S. — 19 percent of the population. That’s a significant community, but it’s one that hasn’t always been treated as fully human. Since the early twentieth century, disability activists have campaigned for the right to work, attend school, and live independently, among other issues. This has resulted in significant legal and practical victories, although there’s still a long way to go before people with disabilities have equal access to every area of society.

The Right to Work

The United States Government’s first step towards safeguarding the rights of people with disabilities came in 1918, when thousands of soldiers returned from World War I injured or disabled. The Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act guaranteed these men would be supported in their recovery and return to work.

However, people with disabilities still had to fight to be considered for jobs. In 1935, a group of activists in New York City formed the League of the Physically Handicapped to protest the Works Progress Administration (WPA) because they stamped applications from people who were visibly physically disabled “PH” (for "physically handicapped”). After a series of sit-ins, this practice was abandoned.

Following lobbying by the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped in 1945, President Truman designated the first week of October every year National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week (it later became National Disability Employment Awareness Month).

More Humane Mental Health Treatment

While the disability rights movement initially focused on people with physical impairments, the middle of the 20th century brought increased concern about the treatment of people with mental health issues and developmental disabilities.

In 1946, conscientious objectors who worked in mental institutions during World War II sent photographs of their naked, starving patients to Life magazine. After they were published, the U.S. Government was shamed into reconsidering the country’s mental health care system.

President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act in 1963, which provided funding for people with mental and developmental disabilities to become a part of society by offering them care in community settings rather than institutionalizing them.

Disability as Identity 

The 1964 Civil Rights Act didn’t directly address discrimination based on disability, but its anti-discrimination protections for women and people of color did provide a basis for the disability rights movement’s subsequent campaigns.

There was an increase in direct action as people with disabilities began to see themselves as having an identity — one they could be proud of. Despite their disparate individual needs, people increasingly worked together and recognized that it wasn’t their physical or mental impairments that held them back, but society’s refusal to adapt to them. 

The Independent Living Movement

Ed Roberts, the first wheelchair user to attend the University of California at Berkeley, founded the Berkeley Center for Independent Living in 1972. This inspired the Independent Living Movement, in which activists insisted that people with disabilities had the right to accommodations that enabled them to live independently.

This was increasingly supported by legislation, but both the government and private companies were slow to get on board. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 made it illegal for organizations awarded federal funding to discriminate against disabled people but the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano refused to sign it until 1977, after nationwide demonstrations and a month-long sit-in at his office, in which more than one hundred people participated, forced the issue.

In 1970, The Urban Mass Transportation Act called for every new American vehicle designed for mass transit to be fitted with wheelchair lifts, but this wasn’t implemented for 20 years. During that time, the campaign group Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) staged regular protests across the nation, sitting in front of buses in their wheelchairs to get the point across.

"Nothing About Us Without Us"

In the late 1980s, people with disabilities embraced the idea that anyone who represented them should ideally share their lived experiences and the slogan “Nothing about us without us” became a rallying cry.

The most significant campaign of this era was the 1988 “Deaf President Now” protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C, where students expressed their frustration about the appointment of another hearing president, even though most students were deaf. After a 2000-person rally and an eight-day sit-in, the university hired I. King Jordan as their first deaf president.

Equality Under the Law 

In 1989, Congress and President H.W. Bush drafted the , the most significant disability legislation in American history. It specified that all government buildings and programs must be accessible — including ramps, automatic doors, and disabled bathrooms — and that companies with 15 or more employees must make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled workers.

However, the ADA’s implementation was delayed due to complaints from businesses and religious organizations that it would be onerous to implement, so in March 1990, protesters gathered at the Capitol Steps to demand a vote. In what became known as the Capitol Crawl, 60 people, many of them wheelchair users, crawled up the Capitol’s 83 steps to emphasize the need for disability access to public buildings. President Bush signed the ADA into law that July and in 2008, it was expanded to include people with chronic illnesses.

Healthcare and the Future

Most recently, access to healthcare has been a battleground for disability activism.

Under the Trump administration, Congress attempted to partially repeal the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”) and replace it with the American Health Care Act of 2017, which would have allowed insurers to raise prices for people with pre-existing conditions.

As well as calling and writing to their representatives, some disabled protesters took direct action. Forty-three people were arrested for staging a “die-in” in the corridor outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office in June 2017.

The bill was scrapped due to a lack of support, but the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act introduced at the end of the year ended the mandate for individuals to buy insurance, and the Republican Party might be able to further weaken the Affordable Care Act in future.

There are other issues in disability activism, of course: from the role disability stigma plays in decisions about assisted suicide to the need for better representation in public life and the media.

But whatever challenges the coming decades present, and whatever laws and policies the Government or private organizations might introduce to threaten disabled people’s happiness, independence, and quality of life, it seems likely that they will continue to fight for equal treatment and an end to discrimination.