Blog Post

Legislation in the Disability Rights Movement


There is a long history of the disability rights movement. The biggest achievements from this movement from a legal standpoint are the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 2008 ADA Amendments Act.

Let’s go back to the beginning. 

In the 1800s, the first organizations for and by people with disabilities were formed. By the 1900s, these organizations became more well known in the public sphere. 

The League of the Physically Handicapped was founded in the 1930s. They were a group of young adults in New York and formed during the Great Depression. The League advocated for employment for people with disabilities. They found evidence that federal agencies had a secret, formal policy of not hiring people with disabilities. Following pickets and sit-ins, the FDR Works Progress Administration granted over five thousand jobs to disabled people in the country. 

In the ‘40s, We Are Not Alone was formed. The group was made up of psychiatric patients who supported other patients in the tough adjustment from hospital to community. 

The National Association for Retarded Children (NARC) was created in 1950. The group was composed of several local groups. NARC had tens of thousands of people by 1960. Most of the members were parents who wanted to find different forms of education and care for their kids. 

The US government began to develop laws to help people with disabilities. In 1948, President Truman created the National Institute of Mental Health. President Kennedy had planning committees to research and treat disability from 1960 to 1963.

In a few sections, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act specifically addressed disability discrimination. These sections are some of the most important disability laws. This act did not go into effect immediately. Actually, it took the longest sit-in in the history of the United States for things to begin to change. People sat in federal buildings across America, most notably in San Francisco and Washington D.C. The sit-in at San Francisco lasted 25 days with over 150 people. There is an Oscar nominated documentary, Crip Camp, that tells the story of the Disabilities Rights Movement that created the sit-in. The documentary can be found on Netflix and YouTube

As stated in an article from the National Park Service’s Disability History series, “Section 501 supports people with disabilities in the federal workplace and in any organization receiving federal tax dollars. Section 503 requires affirmative action, which supports employment and education for members of traditionally disadvantaged minority groups. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace and in their programs and activities. Section 508 guarantees equal or comparable access to technological information and aid for people with disabilities.”

In 1975 the Education of All Handicapped Children Act was enacted which guaranteed children with disabilities a public school education. 

In 1988, one of the biggest pieces of disability legislation was introduced: Americans with Disabilities Act, (commonly known as the ADA), of 1990. President George Bush signed the ADA on July 26, 1990. The ADA “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities.” The law guarantees that people with disabilities are equal to everyone else in terms of employment, buying goods and participating in government. 

There was an amendment to the act called the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. The ADAAA was passed in response to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the original text of the ADA. The amendment expanded the definition of the term “disability.” The term was clarified and broadened in order to help more Americans. 

A lot of these laws were able to be passed due to the hard work of disability activists. While most history classes don’t go into the history of disability legislation, it’s a vital part of the shaping of the United States.