Disability Rights Movement

History of the Independent Living Movement

Historical Roots of Discrimination

Many cultures of the world have treated persons with disabilities as having less worth than able-bodied people have. The Spartans left deformed babies to die on the hillsides. Lunatic asylums in Europe, in centuries past, imprisoned people with psychiatric disabilities in appalling conditions. The Nazis systematically killed children and adults with mental retardation, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities.

The United States also has a long history of discrimination against persons with disabilities. In colonial days, when the focus was on survival and building new communities in the wilderness, physical stamina and moral worthiness were considered essential. Dependency of any kind was considered a financial burden. As early as 1751, states began opening almshouses, workhouses, insane asylums, and other institutions for “the support and maintenance of idiots, lunatics, and other persons of unsound minds.” In Illinois today, institutional care still takes the lion’s share of state funding for services to persons with developmental disabilities.

Civil Rights Laws

From 1968 to 1992, a number of laws were created that established certain civil rights for persons with disabilities. These laws addressed architectural barriers, discrimination against persons with disabilities in federally funded programs, education rights for children with disabilities, “Bill of Rights” for persons with developmental disabilities and mental illness, discrimination in housing, consumer control over their own vocational rehabilitation plans, and creation of Centers for Independent Living. Most important among these is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the civil rights law for all persons with disabilities.

But as any African-American can tell you, the passing of a civil rights law in Washington does not give true freedom and equality and integration without a long struggle. Indeed, our disability rights movement closely mirrors their civil rights movement. In the 1950s, blacks protested because they had to sit in the back of the bus; in the 1970s, people with disabilities protested because they couldn’t get on the bus! We, too, are fighting blatant and subtle prejudice, building pride in who we are, and protesting discrimination in non-violent ways.

No Pity

Our world is changing fast. Rapid advances in technology, new civil rights protections, better-educated students with disabilities coming out of “mainstreamed” classrooms, a new group consciousness, and political activism mean more disabled people are seeking jobs and greater daily participation in American life. But prejudice, society’s low expectations, and an antiquated welfare and social service system frustrate our attempts at independence. The disability rights movement includes new thinking by people with disabilities that there is no pity or tragedy in disability. It is society’s myths, fears, and stereotypes, and the barriers that society creates, that cause the difficulties associated with disability.

One in Five

Did you know that one in five Americans today has a disability? There are over 54 million Americans with disabilities – one in five. We are more numerous than African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. We are the nation’s largest minority!

We are a very diverse group. There are hundreds of different disabilities. Some are present at birth, most are acquired later in life. Some are progressive, like muscular dystrophy. Others, such as epilepsy, are episodic. Multiple sclerosis is episodic and progressive. Some are static, like the loss of a limb. Some, like cancer, can even go away. Some disabilities, like epilepsy or diabetes, are hidden. Some perceived disabilities, such as obesity or stuttering, which are not disabling but create prejudice and discrimination. Each disability comes in differing degrees of severity. For example, hearing loss can range from a mild loss to profound deafness. Some people with autism spend their lives in institutions while others are graduating from college and pursuing professions.

There are more of us then ever before. Advances in medical technology have saved the lives of severely injured people, and allow people with all kinds of medical complications to live longer. Think of wounded soldiers, automobile accidents, premature babies, people with cancer surviving longer. The graying of America expands our ranks, too. One-third of Americans with disabilities are 65 or older.

Disability is the one minority that anyone can join at any time, as a result of a sudden automobile accident, assault, or disease. Fewer than 15% are born with their disabilities. There are no socioeconomic boundaries. You can become disabled from your mother’s poor nutrition or addiction to crack, or from falling off your polo pony. And if you live long enough, you are very likely to acquire a disability.

A New Movement

People with disabilities have been a hidden, misunderstood minority, often routinely deprived of the basic life choices that even the most disadvantaged among us take for granted. In the last 20 to 30 years, little noticed alongside the civil rights struggles of African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and other minorities, another movement has slowly taken shape to demand for people with disabilities the fundamental rights that have already been granted to all other Americans. It has led to the emergence of a group consciousness, even the start of a disability culture, which did not exist nationally even in the late 1970s.

Our Movement is a True Mosaic

There is a disability angle to almost any topic, from access to health care to aging to end-of-life issues, from abortion to prenatal care, from education to work, from civil rights to criminal justice. The disability rights movement is a true mosaic, with diversity as its central characteristic. No one leader or organization can claim to speak for all people with disabilities. Without one highly visible leader, the disability rights movement has gone largely unnoticed by nondisabled people. But by its acceptance of differences, the campaign for disability rights has forged a powerful coalition of millions of people with disabilities, their families and friends.

Disability Rights Leaders

Below is a list of just a few key people in the Disability Rights Movement, please use your preferred search engine and research how these and other individuals contributed to the rights of persons with disabilities and civil rights in general. Without these leaders, we would not be where we are today.

  • Blank, Wade
  • Dart, Justin
  • Fay, Fred
  • Frieden, Lex
  • Heumann, Judy
  • Roberts, Ed
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