This post was originally shared on my Man, Myth, Mike blog.
History is made by those who challenge the status quo, those who seek change within and far beyond their own lives. Movements for equality are born from the devoted few making the voices of the many singular. When a marginalized group speaks up in the name of freedom and justice it is often an act of necessity; it is not simply that they can be heard, it is that they must be heard. When most think about campaigns of social justice the images that generally come to mind are that of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Woman’s suffrage or LGBTQ rights, however, one of the more overlooked but equally as important battles is the American Disability Rights Movement.
Throughout history disabled people have largely be excluded from mainstream society. People like myself in the past faced mass institutionalization, abuse, neglect and even death. Progress towards better treatment was painfully slow despite advances in technology and culture, even after the U.S. was lead by a disabled president, Franklin D. Roosevelt for 12 years. Prior to the Disability Rights Movement, being disabled was widely regarded as a purely medical issue and not a matter of social equality. One of the first major concepts presented by disabled rights activists was that accommodation and inclusion were not simply acts of charity but instead basic human rights.
It is no coincidence that the push for disabled rights came at the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the powerful efforts of black activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. Many disabled individuals felt that the Civil Rights bill, while a major victory on the road to equality, failed to protect against discrimination based on disability. Much like the fight for racial justice, disabled activism set out to change both perception as well as legislation. As Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This pivotal campaign for the fair treatment of disabled Americans certainly echoes Mead’s sentiment.
Early on, a crucial milestone of the larger disabled movement was the Independent Living Movement in the 1960’s, where activists such as Ed Roberts from California advocated for equal living, educational and work opportunities for disabled persons. In turn, it began to shift public opinion leading to the first federal legislation. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 was passed to address the barriers that physically disabled people faced within society.
Another major turning point was the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which was further expanded in 1977 due to widespread direct-action protesting lead by people like Frank Bowe and Judith Heumann (currently Special Advisor for International Disability Rights to President Barack Obama). The Rehabilitation Act and specifically it’s section 504 provision prevented any organization receiving government funding to discriminate against qualified disabled individuals.
However, the most important event to date in the history of disabled rights in the U.S. did not occur until 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. This sweeping bill was imposed by congress and later signed into law by President George H.W. Bush twenty-five years ago this past July. The ADA, while certainly not perfect, is intended to end discrimination towards a wide array of impairments and illnesses. The groundbreaking law was made possible by a diverse group activists and lawmakers.
A very notable cross-disability organizer and ADA advocate was Fred Fay, who was able to remotely unite and manage the cause quite literally flat on his back. Dr. Fay was paralyzed at the age of 16 and due to a spinal cyst spent the last 25 years of his life in a laying position, he was a pioneer of disabled rights his entire career able to bring together multiple disability groups under the common theme of stigma and oppression. He once said, “Disability is equal opportunity, anyone can qualify at any moment.’’
The brave men and women of the Disability Movement devoted their lives to the betterment of disabled people everywhere, I owe a personal debt of gratitude to the work of these amazing people. So many things I am able to do with my life today are the direct result of this powerful social justice movement. I am inspired to continue the fight for a better tomorrow each time I learn about the efforts of civil rights activists, they are living proof that our voice matters.