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The disability rights movement aims to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities and to confront the disadvantages and discrimination that they face. The goals and demands of the movement are bifurcated. One major concern is achieving civil rights for the disabled. This is further broken down into issues of accessibility in transportation, architecture, and the physical environment and equal opportunities in employment, education, and housing. Effective civil rights legislation is sought in order to eliminate exclusionary practice.

For people with physical disabilities accessibility and safety are primary issues that this movement works to reform. Access to public areas such as city streets and public buildings and restrooms are some of the more visible changes brought about in recent decades. A noticeable change in some parts of the world is the installation of elevators, transit lifts, wheelchair ramps and curb cuts, allowing people in wheelchairs and with other mobility impairments to use public sidewalks and public transit more easily and more safely. These improvements have also been appreciated by parents pushing strollers or carts, bicycle users, and travelers with rolling luggage.

Access to education and employment have also been a major focus of this movement. Adaptive technologies, enabling people to work jobs they could not have previously, help create access to jobs and economic independence. Access in the classroom has helped improve education opportunities and independence for people with disabilities.

The second concern of the movement deals with lifestyle, self-determination, and an individual’s ability to live independently. The right to have an independent life as an adult, sometimes using paid assistant care instead of being institutionalized, is another major goal of this movement, and is the main goal of the similar independent living and self-advocacy movements, which are more strongly associated with people with intellectual disabilities and mental health disorders. These movements have supported people with disabilities to live as more active participants in society.

As a result of the work done through the Disability Rights Movement, significant legislation was passed in the 1970s through the 1990s.


In the United Statesmarker, the disability rights movement began in the 1970s, encouraged by the examples of the African-American civil rights and women’s rights movements, which began in the late 1960s. It was at this time that the movement began to have a cross-disability focus. The movement was unique in the fact that it was pluralistic. People with different kinds of disabilities (physical and mental handicaps, along with visual- and hearing-impairments) and different essential needs alongside people with no disabilities have been able to come together to fight for a common cause.

One of the most important developments of the movement was the growth of the Independent Living movement, which emerged in Californiamarker through the efforts of Edward Roberts and other wheelchair-dependent individuals. Another crucial turning point was the nationwide sit-in conceived by Frank Bowe and organized by the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in 1977 of government buildings operated by HEW in San Franciscomarker and Washington DCmarker that successfully led to the release of regulations pursuant to Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Prior to the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act was the most important disability rights legislation in the United States. The Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund was begun in 1979.

In the UK, following extensive activism by disabled people over several decades, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA 1995) was passed. This makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transport. It is a civil rights law. Other countries use constitutional, social rights or criminal law to make similar provisions. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides support for the Act. Equivalent legislation exists in Northern Ireland, which is enforced by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.


This is a timeline of key events including significant legislation, activists' actions, and the founding of various organizations related to the Disability Rights Movement.


  • 1968 - Architectural Barriers Act: this act requires all federally financed and constructed buildings to be accessible to disabled people.


  • 1970 - Urban Mass Transportation Act: made mass transport facilities and services accessible to the handicapped and the elderly.
  • ------- - Disabled in Action is founded by Judith Heumann in New York City. A number of chapters were also started in various other cities.
  • 1972 - Disability activists in Washington, D.C. protest President Nixon’s veto of what is now known as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • ------- - The Center for Independent Living is established by Edward Roberts in Berkeley, California. This sparks the Independent Living Movement.
  • ------- - In Mills v. Board of Education the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia decided that every child, regardless of the type and severity of their disability is entitled to a free public education.
  • 1973 - Rehabilitation Act of 1973: addresses the issue of discrimination against people with disabilities and prohibits federally funded programs from discriminating against disabled individuals.
  • 1975 - The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities is founded in Washington, D.C.
  • ------- - Education for All Handicapped Children Act (renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990): gives all children with disabilities the right to receive a free and integrated public education “in the least restrictive environment”.
  • 1977 - Disability rights activists demonstrate at the offices of the HEW department for the signing of the Section 504 regulations. HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signs the regulations on April 28.
  • 1978 - Disability rights activists protest the Denver Regional Transit Authority because the transit system is inaccessible.
  • 1979 - The Disability Rights and Education Fund is established in Berkeley, California.


  • 1981 - The United Nations establishes the year as the International Year of Disabled Persons.
  • 1982 - Telecommunications for the Disabled Act: mandates that public phones be accessible to the hearing impaired by Jan 1, 1985.
  • 1983 - The Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit organization is established in Denver, Colorado.
  • 1984 - Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act: requires that polling places be accessible and accommodating to the disabled and elderly.
  • 1988 - Deaf President Now student demonstration at Gallaudet Universitymarker in Washington, D.C. On March 13 Dr. I. King Jordan was named the first Deaf president of the university.
  • ------- - The Fair Housing Act is amended to protect people with disabilities from housing discrimination in the areas of rentals, sales, and financing as outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The amendment also provided that reasonable modifications needed to be made to existing buildings and accessibility had to be constructed into new multi-family housing units.


  • 1990 - Americans with Disabilities Act: It gave citizens with disabilities equal rights and prohibited discrimination by the local and federal government, employers, and private services based on disabilities.
  • ------- - ADAPT is renamed American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today to reflect its change in purpose.
  • 1995 - the American Association of People with Disabilities is founded in Washington, D.C.
  • ------- - The film When Billy Broke His Head… and Other Tales of Wonder, by Billy Golfus, premiers on PBS. It’s a personal portrayal that highlights the Disability Rights Movement.

Physical disabilities

Floor marker for disabled people in Narita Airport, Japan

The focus of activists for the rights of people with physical disabilities began with access to public and private buildings and general accommodation of people who are less mobile or dexterous. In particular, they advocate the inclusion of wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, wide doors and corridors, and the elimination of unnecessary steps where ramps and elevators are not available.

While physical access remains an ongoing need,in the United States, other needs were raised and became elements in the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 such as employment and transportation.

Developmental disabilities

Advocates for the rights of people with developmental disabilities focus their efforts on gaining acceptance in the workforce and in everyday activities and events from which they might have been excluded in the past.

Unlike many of the leaders in the physical disability rights community, self-advocacy has been slow in developing for people with developmental disabilities. Public awareness of the civil rights movement for this population remains limited, and the stereotyping of people with developmental disabilities as non-contributing citizens who are dependent on others remains common.


One of the most widely recognized and publicized protest involved with the movement was the sit-ins at the department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) buildings around the nation in April 1977. On April 5, 1977, activists began to demonstrate and some sat-in in the offices found in ten of the federal regions including New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. The two most noteworthy protests occurred in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The protesters demanded the signing of regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

There were about 300 people in Washington, D.C. who marched to and then demonstrated inside the HEW building where Secretary Joseph Califano’s office was. He was the man who was to sign the regulations, but was delaying the process. Although he met with a few protest representatives, including Frank Bowe, he still did not sign. This action led many protesters to continue their sit-in overnight, but they then left after 28 hours.

The more successful sit-in occurred in San Francisco, led by Judith Heumann. The first day of protests marked the first of a 25-day sit-in. Close to 120 disability activists and protesters occupied the HEW building. Califano finally signed on April 28, 1977.

This protest was significant not only because its goal was achieved, but also because it was the foremost concerted effort between people of different disabilities coming together in support of legislation that affected the overall disability population, rather than only specific groups.

Another significant protest related to disability rights was the Deaf President Now protest of the Gallaudet University students in Washington, D.C. in March 1988. The 8-day (March 6 – March 13) demonstration and occupation and lock-out of the school began when the Board of Trustees appointed a new hearing President, Elisabeth Zinser, over two deaf candidates. The students’ primary grievance was that the university, which was dedicated to the education of the hearing-impaired, has never had a deaf president, someone representative of them. Of the protesters’ four demands, the main one was the resignation of the current president and the appointment of a deaf one. The student demonstration consisted of about 2,000 participants who were not just students. The protests not only took place on campus, but they also took it to government buildings and marched through the streets. In the end, all the students’ demands were met and I. King Jordan was appointed the first Deaf President of the university.

Other important protests were held in Denver, Colorado. Disability rights activist there, organized by the Atlantis Community, held a sit-in and blockade of the Denver Regional Transit Authority buses in 1978. They were protesting the fact that city’s transit system was completely inaccessible for the physically disabled. This action proved to be just the first in a series of civil disobedience demonstrations that lasted for a year until the Denver Transit Authority finally bought buses equipped with wheelchair lifts.

In 1983, the ADAPT was responsible for another civil disobedience campaign also in Denver that lasted seven years. They targeted the American Public Transport Association in protest of inaccessible public transportation.


  • Ed Roberts is often referred to as the father of the disability right movements. His efforts to get into college succeeded in his admission to UC Berkeley in 1962. His fight for access at Berkeley spread into seeking access in the community and the development of the first Center for Independent Living.

  • John Tyler was an advocate for the rights of the disabled who was himself disabled with severe polio. He parked his wheelchair in front of Metro buses in Seattle, Washingtonmarker, U.S.A.marker in the late 1970s and performed other actions to make sure that the proper wheelchair lifts, not the "folding camel" lifts, would be put onto the public transit buses. The original lifts could potentially dump people in wheelchairs, and also break down more easily. After his death from suicide on December 24, 1984, he was remembered at Center Park in Seattle, Washington, the first apartment building built in the United States specifically for people in wheelchairs.

  • Jeff Moyer is an important and unique musician to the Disability Rights Movement. He began his work as the resident musician of the 504 protests in San Francisco, circa 1977.

  • Diana Braun and Kathy Conour are a pair of well-known lobbyists and activists in the disability movement. Diana has Down Syndrome, while Kathy, on the other hand, is 61 years old, has a degree in English, and has had cerebral palsy since her birth which left her non-verbal. For 37 years they've lived together, forging a symbiotic relationship that has allowed them to live independently and be active in their community. They are the subjects of Alice Elliott's 2007 documentary, Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy.

Selected Organizations

  • American Association of People with Disabilities (1995) – a cross-disability organization that focuses on advocacy and services.
  • American Association of Citizens with Disabilities (1975-1983) – was a cross-disability organization that focuses on advocacy and services.
  • American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (1978) – was organized by the Atlantis Community and primarily serves the physically disabled and focuses on advocating for rights and services.
  • American Federation for the Physically Handicapped (1940-1958) – primarily served the physically disabled and focused on advocacy and services.
  • American Foundation for the Blind (1921) - primarily served the blind population and focused on advocacy and services.
  • Center for Independent Living (1972) - primarily served the physically disabled and focused on advocacy and services.
  • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (1979) – a cross-disability organization that focuses on legal advocacy, training and research. The group participated in a significant amount of lobbying and legislation from the 1980s to the 90s.
  • Disabled in Action (1970) - primarily served the physically disabled and focused on advocacy and services. The group concerns itself with pushing for new legislation that would provide for and defend the civil rights of people with disabilities and with the enforcement of the current legislation.
  • National Association of the Deaf (1880) - primarily served the deaf population and focused on advocacy and services.
  • National Council on Disability (1978) - a cross-disability organization with a focus on the government.
  • National Council on Independent Living (1982) – a cross-disability organization with a focus on the government.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities (1977) – primarily serves people with learning disabilities and focuses on advocacy and services

See also



  1. Roberta Ann Johnson, "Mobilizing the Disabled," in Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, pp. 84-93
  2. Roberta Ann Johnson, "Mobilizing the Disabled," p. 83-88
  3. The Regents of the University of California. 2008. “The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement.” Berkeley, CA: The University of California Berkeley
  4. Fleischer, Doris Z. and Frieda Zames. “Disability Rights.” Social Policy 28.3 (1998): 52-55. Web.
  5. Barnartt, Sharon N. and Richard Scotch. 2001. Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970-1999. Gallaudet University Press.


  • Roberta Ann Johnson, "Mobilizing the Disabled," in Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, edited by Jo Freeman (Longman, 1983), pp. 82-100; reprinted in Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties edited by Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), pp. 25-45.
  • Paul K. Longmore and Laurie Umansky, editors, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York Univ. Press, 2001).
  • Fred Pelka, The ABC Clio Companion to the Disability Rights Movement (ABC-Clio, 1997).
  • Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (Times Books, 1993). ISBN 0-8129-2412-6
  • Bagenstos, Samuel. 2009. “Law and the Contradictions of the Disability Rights Movement.” Yale University Press.
  • Barnartt, Sharon N. and Richard Scotch. 2001. Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970-1999. Gallaudet University Press.
  • Fleischer, Doris Z. and Frieda Zames. “Disability Rights.” Social Policy 28.3 (1998): 52-55. Web.
  • Fleischer, Doris Zames and Freida Zames. 2001. “The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation.” Temple University Press.
  • Stroman, Duane. 2003. “The Disability Rights Movement: From Deinstitutionalization to Self-Determination.” University Press of America.
  • The Regents of the University of California. 2008. “The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement.” Berkeley, CA: The University of California Berkeley

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