This page does not provide a comprehensive history of the disability rights movement in America as there have been so many historical moments (both good and bad) that have shaped disability culture and identity within the United States.

Watch "Disability History: An Introduction"

Go on a journey with disability rights activist Lawrence Carter-Long as your guide in this video overview of the rich history and culture of the disability community.

The Early Years: 1815-1915

Disability rights started in the early 1800s with both the founding of formal education for the Deaf and the Deaf-Blind communities along with the invention of Braille. However, progress was limited by society's views of the disabled community to the point that, in 1907, the Eugenic Sterilization Law was enacted in 24 states, which allowed for the sterilization of disabled people.

Source: A Fierce Kind of Love, Temple University.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Changes the Employment and Higher Ed Landscape

The Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors. The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It contains four sections: Section 501, Section 503, Section 504, and Section 508.

As higher education receives federal funding, we must adhere to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which:

  • Prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance, and set the stage for enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • States that federally funded institutions must include reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities; and accessible new construction and alterations.

The Rehabilitation Act does not go into effect immediately. In fact, it takes the longest sit-in in US history for it go into effect. In 1977, Disabled people occupied federal buildings in several cities, including San Francisco and Washington D.C. The San Francisco sit-in lasted 25 days with more than 150 people refusing to leave.

The Disabilities Right Movement that led up to the sit-in is captured in the Oscar nominated documentary, Crip Camp. Crip Camp is available on both Netflix and YouTube. We highly recommend watching it and have included an embed of the YouTube version.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Crip Camp shares with insight, clarity, humor, and beauty the experiences of one group of disabled young people and their journey to activism and adulthood, and in doing so, provides an opportunity for all to delve into the rich and complicated history of disability activism, culture, and history.

Advancements in the Early-Mid 1900s

The following advancements were made during the early to mid-1900s:

  • 1920: The Smith-Fess Act established a federal program to provide vocational assistance to Americans with physical disabilities. 
  • 1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first person with a disability elected a US President. Roosevelt takes great effort to conceal his disability throughout office.
  • 1950: National Standards for Barrier Free Buildings are developed based on a barrier-free movement by disabled veterans and the general disability community. 
  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act is passed. People with disabilities are left out of the act and still lack opportunities to participate in and be contributing members of society. They are denied access to employment and are discriminated against based on disability.

Sources: A Fierce Kind of Love, Temple University; Equality for Americans with Disabilities, ShareAmerica.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. The ADA represents bipartisan support for disability inclusion in multiple aspects of public life by allowing individuals with disabilities to challenge discrimination in the realms of employment, public services, and places of public use. The overarching goal of the ADA is to promote equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for Americans with disabilities.

Title I is designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities

Both public and private colleges and universities must provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Title II of the ADA covers publicly-funded universities, community colleges, and vocational schools.

Adapted from the ADA National Network site.

Local settlements that have paved the way for disability rights

While the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed with the various guidelines and standards for public and private entities to consider, the truth is that most changes have not been implemented in a proactive way. Instead, disabled people have used the ADA to reach settlements with public and private entities to ensure equal access to programs and services. Here are just a few of the local settlements that have occurred since the ADA was passed:

  • 2002: A group of local disabled riders sued the MBTA for failing to have accessible transit in  Joanne Daniels-Finegold, et al. v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA settled the class action suit and agreed to provide more reliable elevators as well as improved access to bus services. As of 2019, the improvements have been shown with a huge reduction in complaints, including operators denying service to riders with disabilities decreasing from 11% in 2005 to <.05%; and disabled riders unable to board a bus due to a broken lift or ramp decreasing from 19% in 2005 to 0%. 
  • 2019-2020: The National Association of the Deaf settles with Harvard (2019) and MIT (2020) in a joint lawsuit where the two universities did not provide captions for their online programs. 
  • 2021: The City of Boston settled a class action lawsuit, Muehe et al. v. City of Boston, filed by local residents with disabilities around the inaccessibility of curb cuts around the city. The case found that many of the curb cuts throughout the city did not meet the required standards for accessibility and actually put disabled people at danger (for example., wheelchair users could easily tip over in their chairs due to the slope of the curb ramps). 

We Will Ride: 10th Anniversary of MBTA Accessibility Agreement

The Current Disability Rights Climate

Many disabled people continue to fight for inclusion both in the physical world and the digital world.

  • Lawsuits continue to climb with ADA-related lawsuits rising from 2890 cases in 2019 to 3550 cases in 2020. 
  • Disabled people continue to encounter inaccessible voting experiences, both with the in-person locations and online experiences.
  • People with disabilities encountered inaccessible COVID-19 websites as well as vaccine registration forms during 2020 and 2021.
  • Disabled people and digital accessibility specialists have spent much of the past two years (2020-2022) campaigning against accessibility overlays, which are companies that market a "one line of code fix" that doesn't actually fix digital accessibility of a company's website - it actually can make it worse.

The one promising area of recent note is the White House's focus on inclusive events (sign language interpreters and audio descriptions) as well as a promised commitment to an accessible and inclusive website.

Can the Disability Rights Movement achieve the goal of inclusion?

Yes. However, in order for both the physical world and digital world to become accessible, we must all play an active role, we must all ask questions, we must all take action and ensure accessible workplaces and digital content.

Inclusion of disabled people isn't a one person responsibility - it's everybody's responsibility. And it's not a point in time - it's a life style change.

Take action by making digital inclusion a standard part of your life to change the future of inclusion.