A Brief History of the Disability Movement

America has had a long and storied history when it comes to the disability community. In the nation’s early years and throughout the 19th century, people with disabilities fought extreme stigma and prejudice, often relegated to institutions as a means of segregation. Assumed to be inferior, many faced social and economic oppression in a country that viewed disability as a source of shame and embarrassment and something that must be “cured” or “fixed”.

This systemic marginalization of people with disabilities continued well into the 20th century, when veterans of World Wars I and II pressured U.S. government to provide rehabilitation and support for injuries incurred in the line of battle. Though significant advancements were made in technology, self-sufficiency and independence remained unattainable notions for many. The social institutions of the day still had a long way to go, as people with disabilities ran up against skeptical employers and inaccessible workplaces. Meaningful work, public transportation and accessible stores, restaurants and community gathering spaces were yet out of reach.

The disability community took a cue from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, seizing an opportunity to band with other minority groups and demand equal rights, access and opportunity. Advocacy and awareness hit all-time highs as people with disabilities pushed for political, economic, social and institutional change. Their efforts were rewarded when, in 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, protecting under law for the first time the civil rights of all people with disabilities.

The Rehabilitation Act was followed in 1975 by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ushered in a new era of classroom inclusion for students with disabilities, as well as offering parents the opportunity to participate in educational decisions involving their children.

Disability lobbyists and advocates continued their crusade for inclusive legislation, resulting in the passage of a hallmark piece of legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in 1990. Under the ADA, discrimination based on disability was officially prohibited, paving the way for equality in employment, transportation, public accommodations, public services, and telecommunications access. Businesses and public places were required to provide reasonable accommodations and adaptations for those who requested them.

Though the ADA celebrated its 25th anniversary in the summer of 2015, progress has yet to be made to ensure the full inclusion and integration of people with disabilities in American society. Stereotypes, stigmas and paradigms devaluing the disability community still exist and are visible today through, for instance, the portrayal of disability in popular media. The disability community continues to fight for a truly equal standing in society.