We’ve Come a Long Way Baby: A Reflection on Disability Rights Throughout the Ages

Disability advocates recently celebrated the 22nd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This landmark civil rights law ensures that you, as an American with a disability, have access to the broad range of opportunities that make for a rich and fulfilling life. Something as simple (but essential) as wheelchair ramps for example, is a product of the ADA.

Looking back on the long 20th century civil rights struggle of our African American citizens, it is clear that Americans with disabilities still have a lot of work ahead to secure a truly equal footing in society.  But, let us not be discouraged by work and perseverance, as this is the only path to freedom.  It is a tried and true path that has been followed by thousands of disability advocates throughout the decades.

Now, let us reflect on where we were, so that we may better appreciate where we are today.

The Power of Perception

Did you know that in the late 1400s people with disabilities such as epilepsy, were considered supernatural threats and labeled as witches?  A 1494 manual, called “The Hammer of the Witches,” authorized by the Pope at the time, provided instruction on how to hunt down these supernatural threats.  Unbelievably, as late as 1940, circuses and other traveling amusements featured people with disabilities as the main attraction in their “freak shows.”

Of course, as the medical field advanced, these ridiculous perceptions and exploitations died away.  This is not to say misconceptions of disability do not persist in our modern age, but there is a clear expectation of acceptance, particularly among youth of the ADA generation.  Furthermore, there are dozens of national organizations (such as the American Association of People with Disabilities) and movements (such as ADAPT) that fight to instill an accurate perception of people with disabilities as capable and valuable.

It is perception after all that can carry a man forward or stop him in his tracks!

The Integration Era

For many years, people with disabilities were separated from the “normal” folks of society, warehoused in institutions for “idiots” or the “feeble minded.”  It wasn’t until 1963, when President John F. Kennedy called for a return of people with disabilities to their communities, that institutions started to fall out of favor.  This movement gained steam in the 1970s and continues to this day, thanks to a dramatic shift in federal policy.

This shift began in 1999 with the “Olmstead decision,” which declared that the institutional isolation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Ten years later, in 2009, the Community Living Initiative (CLI) was created to increase opportunities for Americans with disabilities to live and participate in their communities.

And now, thanks to this movement, we see people with disabilities out and about, participating in activities that were once considered out of reach.

A Call to Action

The disability rights movement continues!  The success or failure of any movement depends entirely on the investment and buy-in of its constituents!  It depends on YOU!

Gandhi had it right when he declared “be the change you want to see in the world.”  You mustn’t simply wait for change, you must make change happen.  No matter how rough the terrain, you must put one foot in front of the other and keep moving!  We have indeed come a long way, but the fight rages on for you, your children, and your children’s children.  Let us not leave this world without at least trying to leave a legacy.


Historical references provided by Museum of disABILITY History

Join NHU on Facebook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: