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Disability Rights Movement


DISABILITY RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Comprises a number of related but distinct social movements advocating civil rights for an estimated 53 million U.S. citizens (as of 1997) with physical, sensory, psychological, or cognitive disabilities that affect their daily activities. Emerging after World War II, these movements replaced a medical model of disability with a minority-group model. The medical model defined disability as physical, psychosocial, and vocational limitation resulting from illness or injury. Locating the problem within individuals, it prescribed the solution as treatment to cure or at least to correct individual functioning. The minority model asserted that limitations in social and vocational functioning were not the exclusive and inevitable result of bodily impairment but were also a product of the inadequacies in the architectural and social environment. Thus, for example, paralyzed legs did not inevitably cause limitations in mobility, but the absence of ramps did. The new model saw devaluation of disabled persons as producing socioeconomic discrimination.

The disability rights movements arose in response to a historic legacy of discrimination and segregation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most professionals in medicine, social services, and education increasingly attributed a lack of moral and emotional self-control to the "defective classes," which included virtually anyone with a disability, blaming them for the poverty, vice, crime, and dislocations of the new industrial order. People with mental retardation, epilepsy, or cerebral palsy were often permanently institutionalized as a danger to society. Others with physical disabilities were at times segregated by such ordinances as Chicago's "ugly" law, which prohibited "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or … deformed" persons from appearing in public. Reacting to an emerging deaf subculture, an "oralist" movement began in the 1880s to oppose sign language and insist that deaf people learn speech and speech reading. Led by Alexander Graham Bell, it took over much of deaf education and sought to disperse the deaf community. Eugenicists pressed for the sterilization of people with various disabilities, and by 1931 more than half the states had adopted sterilization laws, and thousands of people were sterilized. Meanwhile, contemporary welfare policy defined disability as the incapacity for productive labor and, in effect, incompetency to manage one's life. It thus brought many disabled people under permanent medical and social-service supervision and relegated them to a stigmatized and segregated economic dependency.

Beginning during World War I, some professionals avowed continuing faith in treatment and training. Special education of disabled children and medical-vocational rehabilitation of disabled adults sought to correct the functional limitations that allegedly prevented social integration. People with physical and sensory disabilities were imbued with an ethos of individualistic striving known as "overcoming," with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's life in a wheelchair as the prime example during the 1930s and early 1940s. People with mental handicaps, however, were still often institutionalized or subjected to social control in the community.

After 1945, the disability rights movements developed in opposition to these ideologies and practices. Parents' groups lobbied in state legislatures and in Congress for the right of disabled children to a "free and appropriate" public education in "the least restrictive environment"—or integration to the maximum extent. These principles were embodied in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Other parents' groups and reform-minded professionals promoted deinstitutionalization and community-based group homes for develop-mentally disabled persons. Beginning in the late 1960s, deaf advocates redefined deafness as a linguistic difference and demanded their rights to sign language and cultural self-determination. Their efforts culminated in the March 1988 "Deaf President Now" campaign at Gallaudet University, when a student strike at that university for deaf people, supported by the deaf community, won its demand for selection of a deaf educator to head the university.

Meanwhile, physically disabled activists launched an independent-living movement for self-directed, community-based living. They also claimed the right of equal access to public transit and public accommodations. Advocacy groups, such as Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT), took to the streets—sometimes tying up traffic, construction, and business—as well as to the halls of legislatures to win passage and enforcement of accessibility statutes. The organized blind movement, long the most politically effective disability movement, lobbied successfully for both access (the right to use white canes and guide dogs in public places) and policies to advance economic well-being (through tax exemptions, for example).

All these efforts reflected an emerging minority consciousness documented in a 1986 opinion survey of disabled adults: 54 percent of those aged eighteen to forty-four identified disabled people as a minority group that faced discrimination. The movement thus demanded federal protection against discrimination in education, jobs, public accommodations, and government-funded activities. Antidiscrimination and the right of equal access were the basis of fifty federal laws that began with the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and culminated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These statutes adopted the disability rights movements' major contribution to U.S. civil rights theory—the concept of equal access. Adaptive devices, assistive services, and architectural modifications (for example, Braille markings, sign-language interpreters, and ramps) had been considered special benefits to those who were fundamentally dependent. Equal access moved beyond such social welfare notions by viewing these provisions as reasonable accommodations for different ways of functioning. Traditional civil rights theory sometimes allowed differential treatment of a minority as a temporary remedy to achieve equality. Disability rights ideology argued that for persons with disabilities, permanent differential treatment in the form of accessibility and reasonable accommodations was legitimate because it was necessary to achieve and maintain equal access and thus equal opportunity for full participation in society.


Barnartt, Sharon N., and Richard K. Scotch. Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970–1999. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2001.

Fleischer, Doris Zames, and Frieda Zames. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Longmore, Paul K., and Lauri Umansky, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Scotch, Richard K. From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times Books, 1993.

Trent, James W., Jr. Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Paul K.Longmore/c. p.

See alsoAmericans with Disabilities Act ; Civil Rights and Liberties ; Eugenics ; Gallaudet University ; Mental Illness ; Social Security .

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