by Andrea Faville
In the name of charity and rehabilitation, Americans with disabilities were effectively segregated from society and denied their constitutional rights for much of U.S. history.
Into the late 20th centuries, citizens with disabilities often were treated like charity cases, tragedies or freaks. Unable to support themselves in the United States’ manufacturing and agriculture-based economy, people with disabilities frequently had to panhandle and live on the streets.
Others had homes, but not of their choosing. They were forcibly committed to hospitals reserved for the disabled where their lives were governed by doctors and hospital staff. Some states passed laws forbidding people with disabilities from marrying or having children, which sometimes provoked forced sterilization.
Public perception of people with disabilities shifted after the two World Wars. Thousands of young men returned from the frontlines deaf, blind or in wheelchairs. During the 1920s and 30s, Congress passed a series of laws creating provisions for integrating war veterans back into the workplace.
But Americans with disabilities lacked the group identity and cohesiveness needed to bring about widespread change — until the 1960s. Inspired by the success of the African-American civil rights movement, people with disabilities began to campaign for legal protection against discrimination. Slowly, through lobbying, protests and sheer persistence, Americans with disabilities challenged the power structures that preserved inequality.
In 1962, Ed Roberts, a quadriplegic paralyzed from the neck down, became the first severely disabled student admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. Roberts’ admittance served as a turning point in the struggle for civil rights. Other disabled students followed suit and petitioned for acceptance to major universities. Eventually, they banded together and secured federal funding for a program that helped disabled students live independently — outside a hospital.
Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, several pieces of legislation created new regulations for schools, public and commercial buildings and transportation. These regulations required public-serving institutions to make “reasonable accommodations” allowing equal access to people with disabilities. Disabled Americans were guaranteed the right to attend desegregated schools and the freedom to enjoy simple pleasures such as taking a train downtown or shopping in a supermarket.
But discrimination against the disabled — called “ableism” — was still rampant. Americans with disabilities were passed over for jobs, forbidden to live certain neighborhoods and housing developments and either denied service or charged a premium for basic accommodations like airplane flights or restaurant meals.
Bolstered by their early successes, people with disabilities continued to campaign for reform. Disabled Americans numbered in the tens of millions, and activists realized that they represented a powerful voting block.
So did Congress. In an almost unanimous, bi-partisan decision, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA guaranteed Americans with disabilities equal access to jobs, government, commercial spaces such as office buildings and restaurants, transportation and telecommunications. One of the most progressive pieces of federal civil rights legislation ever, the ADA mandated that citizens with disabilities be given the same treatment, opportunities and considerations as all other American citizens.