Modern US History

All the modern US history fit to print

Category: Dori Auslander

“The public birth of the disability rights movement… For the first time, disability really was looked at as an issue of civil rights rather than an issue of charity and rehabilitation at best, pity at worst” – Kitty Cone (Organizer of the San Francisco Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act sit-in and protest)

Introduction to the History of Disabilities in the US

The treatment and opinion of individuals with disabilities in the United States has radically changed since the late 1800s (Meldon 2017). Individuals with disabilities have fought a long and hard battle to gain rights and equal opportunity within the United States. While this fight for equality may not be spoken about as frequently as other civil rights movements, the history of the “feebleminded” and individuals with disabilities is immense. From the beginning of the history of the United States, individuals with disabilities were a marginalized group, with many laws put in place to limit their rights to enter the country, reproduce, gain an education, be employed, and many other freedoms within the US. With this being said, individuals with disabilities continue the Disability Rights Movement today and continue to battle for equal opportunities and de-stigmatization in the 21st century (Turnbull and Rutherford 2012; Meldon 2017).

Throughout disability history in the United States, there have been a multitude of definitions and different meanings for what having a disability meant for that individual. Before the Disability Rights Movement, in the late 1800s and early 1900s immigrants were flooding to US immigration points such as Ellis Island. If any immigrant were to step off the boat with any indication of a physical or intellectual disability they were turned away from entering the United States (Burgin 2018). This was around the time when their was a great anxiety about the “Anglo-Saxon” birth rates dropping which is also known as “race suicide” (Burgin 2018). These ideologies spearheaded Margaret Sanger’s partnership of the Birth Control Movement and the Eugenics Movement in the late 1890s into the early 1900s (Burgin 2018). Sanger’s argument was that individuals who were uneducated, poor, and had disabilities were “unfit” and “unqualified to reproduce (Sanger 1921). This movement paired with the sterilization laws put in place in many states throughout the US clearly distinguishes peoples thoughts about people with disabilities (Cepko 1993). The sterilization laws passed in states stated that women with intellectual disabilities were deemed unfit to have babies and therefore could be sterilized under the law (Cepko 1993). In cases like the “Baby Doe” case, the federal government would intervene and force parents to get surgeries for their newborn babies with a physical disability that the parents may have opted out of for a number of reasons (Annas 1984). Many of these laws and federal interventions were ethically debated, creating additions to Child Abuse Act or even being ruled unconstitutional (Annas 1984; Cepko 1993).

During the 1960s the Disability Rights Movement was formed with a  focus on all disabilities, meaning the movement was fighting for the rights of all disabilities, not just intellectual or just physical (Meldon 2017). The model and the inspiration for this movement stemmed from the Women’s Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement (Meldon 2017). In the early 1900s, many organizations supporting individuals with disabilities were formed in order to fight for different equalities and opportunities (Meldon 2017). For instance, during the Great Depression The League of the Physically Handicapped was organized in order to gain employment opportunities (Meldon 2017).  As one can imagine, the list of organizations created by individuals with disabilities and their parents are endless. That also goes for the laws that have been passed by the US Congress and committees made by previous Presidents in order to support the civil rights of people with disabilities in this country (Meldon 2017). In 1977, for example, after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had continuously not been implemented, a group of individuals with disabilities gave President Carter until April 5, 1997 to implement the regulation (Meldon 2017; DLil 2015; Grim 2015). Section 504 was fighting to be implemented in order to ban discrimination based on disability in the workplace (Meldon 2017; DLil 2015; Grim 2015). On April 5th, since the President did not sign the document, there were nationwide sit-ins in many federal office buildings, one in San Francisco that lasted until April 28th when the regulations were implemented (Meldon 2017; DLil 2015; Grim 2015).

As it is difficult to speak on every organization made and event that took place in the time leading up to the Disability Rights Movement, it is critical to touch on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA (Meldon 2017; Grim 2015; McNeese and Myhill 2014; Public Broadcasting Service 2011). The protest was in Washington, D.C. and is referred to as the “Capitol Crawl” as individuals with disabilities climbed the Capitol stairs by crawling, leaving wheelchairs, crutches, etc. at the bottom of the stairs (Meldon 2017). The ADA is a civil rights law passed to protect people with disabilities from being discriminated against in public areas, such as schools and public transit (Americans With Disabilities Act 1990). This large protest led to the passing of the ADA in July of 1990 (Americans With Disabilities Act 1990). The community of protestors, leaders, and advocates for individuals with disabilities were able to create change in legislation and policies that significantly changed the lives of this population of people with disabilities (DLil 2015). The most important part to note is that these successes of changing laws and policies, successful protests and sit-ins, were lead from and organized from within, by people with disabilities, proving they are just as able and autonomous as the rest of us. It is critical, throughout this online museum, to remember that this is a very limited history of disabilities in this country. There have been countless other movements, legislation, leaders, and activists just as critical to the history of disability rights in this country that may not be mentioned here. This museum is my best effort to highlight important historical context and heartbreaking, as well as uplifting events that took place during the fight for disability rights in the US spanning from the 1800s until present day.



1848: “Beginnings”

“Beginnings” – a special school “for idiots”

In 1848 Samuel Gridley Howe opened one of the first special schools within the United States (Beginnings 2015). The school was named “The Massachusetts School for the Feeble Minded” within the preexisting “Perkins Institute for the Blind” (Beginnings 2015). The special school was created as “an experimental school for idiots” (Beginnings 2015). All around the country, people were opening institutions that were created for people who were referred to at the time as “feebleminded” or “idiots”. As can be seen through the five name changes in the history of the “American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded”, words like “idiot”, “feeble-minded”, “mental retardation” are no longer popular terms in the 21st century (AAIDD 2018). Currently, this population is categorized more commonly as individuals with “intellectuals and developmental disabilities” (AAIDD 2018). The importance of the image of the special school is to recognize the historical context of disabilities in this country. The Education Exhibit on the Museum of DisABILITY site, where this image of the special school is archived, is attempting to do just that.  At one point in this country’s history people with disabilities were being taken and locked away like prisoners, in prison like complexes. These individuals were being grossly maltreated for having a disability, which was and continues to be seen as a misfortune or problem in this country.

1918: “American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded” Meeting Minutes

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many states within the U.S. began to legalize the sterilization of woman with physical and intellectual disabilities (Burgin 2018). The American Journal of Mental Deficiency printed the minutes from a meeting of the “American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded”. This is the association discussed above, that has continuously changed it’s name as the historical context of individuals with disabilities has evolved in this country. Within these minutes are members published work that is read for the meeting and then discussed and critiqued during the meeting. The pieces of work “The Prevention of Mental Defect by Herman G. Matzinger, M.D. and “The Practical Working Out Of Sterilization” by A.W. Wilmarth, M.D. are included in the minutes. These were then discussed as a group within the members following the reading of them.;size=100;id=mdp.39015072906616;q1=discussion;page=root;seq=32;num=26

Beginning arguments of Herman G. Matzinger M.D. on “The Prevention of Mental Defect”;size=100;id=mdp.39015072906616;q1=discussion;page=root;seq=32;num=26;size=100;id=mdp.39015072906616;q1=discussion;page=root;seq=32;num=26

Excerpt from “The Practical Working Out Of Sterilization” by A.W. Wilmarth, M.D.;size=100;id=mdp.39015072906616;q1=discussion;page=root;seq=32;num=26

As you can see by the excerpts above, not every committee member agrees with one another, but there are quite a few members that are fighting for sterilization as a way to prevent intellectual disabilities. Within these meeting minutes, there is heavy debate whether sterilization is constitutional, and examples of cases that are being brought to the Supreme Court. What I find most fascinating and compelling, though, is Dr. Southard, who is arguing that the vast generalizations and sweeping definitions of individuals with disabilities is a problem. This problem of assuming all people with disabilities are the same, with one solution, one diagnoses, one definition is a problem we continued to struggle with in the 21st century.

1919: Henry Goddard’s “The Kallikak Family: a Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness”;view=1up;seq=25

Photographs of Deborah “Kallikak” in Goddard’s training school;view=1up;seq=25

As discussed above, there was large debate during the 1910s about the right for women with disabilities to reproduce. Henry H. Goddard, a psychologist, did a case study on a family he referred to as the “Kallikak” family, specifically focusing on Deborah “Kallikak” who was a patient at Goddard’s training school. Goddard’s book contains journal entries, pictures, data, family trees, and his findings from the case study. Goddard used this case study to support his hypothesis that intellectual disabilities, or what he referred to as “feeble-mindedness” is hereditary. Due to the fact Goddard was a eugenicist, he used his findings to support sterilization and the limitation of the reproduction of women with intellectual disabilities. Goddard’s findings spread widely throughout the nation, helping to grow the popular conceptions and stereotypes about individuals with disabilities.

1921: Margaret Sanger’s “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”;view=1up;seq=73

The front cover of the “Birth Control Review” where Sanger published her article;view=1up;seq=73;view=1up;seq=73

Excerpt from Margaret Sanger’s “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control and Propaganda”;view=1up;seq=73

As the Introduction to the museum discusses, Margaret Sanger was an activist and leader in the Birth Control Movement (Burgin 2018). In the early 1900s when a large portion of the population was beginning to fear the decrease in the Anglo-Saxon race, the Eugenics movement skyrocketed. Sanger’s article about the connection of eugenics and the Birth Control Movement speaks to whom she, and the larger population, see as the fit and qualified population to be reproducing. Sanger refers to the “unfit” in society as those who are poor, uneducated, and the feeble-minded (Sanger 1921). Her intention with this is to promote those who are not physically or mentally fit, who aren’t educated and wealthy enough, are those who are defined as the people who should not be giving birth. This way there will be a decrease in “unfit” babies and it will “discourage the over fertility” of the “defective” (Sanger 1921). Sanger’s and many other people’s in the 20th century mentality and generalized stereotype of individuals with disabilities not being fit to parent continues to be a concern and widespread stereotype in the 21st century.

1927: Buck v. Bell Supreme Court Case

Carrie Buck pictured with her mother

An image of Virginia’s sterilization procedure order form

Buck v. Bell is an extremely important Supreme Court Case in the history of disabilities and sterilization in the U.S. In Virginia sterilization was legalized in 1924 and Carrie Buck was one of the first people sterilized within the state (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library 2014). When Buck brought this to the Super Court the judge sided with Bell, that it was not unconstitutional to sterilize a woman who was deemed to have a disability (Buck v Bell 1927). In the case of Carrie Buck, she was impregnated from being sexually assaulted and her mother had her out of wedlock, which in the 20th century classified them as being feeble-minded and therefore could be subjected to sterilization (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library 2014). Within the court document, the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes states his verdict was because, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Buck v Bell 1927). Not only was sterilization of woman legal, it was enforced by the highest court of law. Woman, much like the case of Carrie Buck, who are defined as being feeble-minded due to being sexually assaulted or born out of wedlock were susceptible to sterilization. This Supreme Court still to this day has not been overturned.

1929: President Roosevelt’s “An Address On Rehabilitation Of The Mentally and Physically Handicapped”

Excerpt from FDR’s “An Address On Rehabilitation Of The Mentally and Physically Handicapped”

Excerpt from FDR’s “An Address On Rehabilitation Of The Mentally and Physically Handicapped”

Excerpt from FDR’s “An Address On Rehabilitation Of The Mentally and Physically Handicapped”

The excerpts above are from a speech President Roosevelt made after returning from a trip to New York where he visited schools and hospitals. In this speech, President Roosevelt talks about his excitement in the strides in the mentality of the public opinion over the past half century. He talks about how he was struck by the possibility of people who were once considered mentally deranged and ill to recover and be active participants within society. In one excerpt above, he refers to his own learning experience, where he connects deafness with dumbness and is corrected by the superintendent of the school. Roosevelt then goes on to reflect about how getting people with disabilities who were once secluded and treated as prisoners back into “normal”, as FDR says, society. His concluding paragraph relates back to the economy and how this population of people with disabilities lacking jobs is therefore dragging down the U.S.’s economy. Concluding his speech in this fashion makes it clear that the real reason he was so pleased to see how capable people with disabilities were during his visit to New York is because they can help better the U.S.’s economy, not because they are capable and it is the morally correct thing to be doing.

1931: “Better Baby Contest”

Newspaper clip advertising the “Better Baby Contest” at a State Fair

The clip from a newspaper published in 1931 is advertising a “Better Baby Contest” at a State Fair in Michigan. After the large influx of immigrants to the United States, people began to fear that the superior race, Anglo-Saxon’s, were not reproducing enough and their population was slowly decreasing (Burgin 2018). Contests like the one being marketed above at State Fairs were attempting to encourage the most fit and qualified, white people to show off their perfect Anglo-Saxon babies and win a cash prize. In order to participate you must have a baby, which is why these “Better Baby Contests” began to spread through the nation as a way of encouraging Anglo-Saxons to have babies. Contests like these piggy back off of Sanger’s push to limit unfit woman from reproducing through her combination of eugenics and the Birth Control Movement.


POST 1940s

1946: Gordan Zahn’s “Slaves or Patients?”

Excerpt from Zahn’s “Slaves or Patients” describing the work program

Excerpt from Zahn’s “Slaves or Patients?” pleading for the people of Maryland to protest

This article by Zahn published in The Catholic Worker called “Slaves or Patients?” argues for the rights of individuals with disabilities. The article discusses, just as the title puts it, if these individuals are being treated like patients or like slaves within mental institutions they are forced into. Zahn’s article focuses specifically on “The Rosewood State Training School” in Maryland, with over a thousand patients who span “the idiot class to high level moron or borderline cases”, as the article says (Zahn 1946). Zahn states that the patients are being treated more like slaves as they are being forced into these institutions and being forced to work 12-hour days with no pay at all. Zahn’s plea and goal through writing this article seems to be for the larger population to fight for the rights of individuals with disabilities and to help them out of the horrible conditions of training schools like Rosewood State. It is gravely important that it was published in The Catholic Worker, as it was a popular journal in the mid 1900s and therefore could reach a large population and exploit what the reality of these training schools were at this time. It is powerful for Zahn’s concluding point to be a call for protest and support for these individuals who currently have no little voice.

1963: President Kennedy’s “Special Message on Mental Illness and Mental Retardation”

Excerpt from JFK’s “Special Message on Mental Illness and Mental Retardation”

Excerpt from JFK’s “Special Message on Mental Illness and Mental Retardation”

President Kennedy’s Special Message on Mental Illness And Mental Retardation was given in the White House discussing new legislation for individuals with disabilities in the US. The speech lays out his plan to expand mental health programs and legislation. His focus was to expand on mental health facilities, improve mental institutions, and give more funding towards research in this field. The excerpts taken from him speech lay out his exact goals for the country over the next decade or so. President Kennedy’s recognition of the neglect and mistreatment of individuals with disabilities was progressive and important for the time. Kennedy’s concluding statement is a plea for Congress to listen and vote in favor of his recommended legislation and improvements to the system of care for individuals with disabilities. While many of JFK’s points in his speech may be seen as problematic, such as his belief that one can be cured from disability with lifestyle change, it is still a good shift in mentality and good recognition of wrongdoings.

1966: “The Role of the National Association for Retarded Children in Program of Education and Training”

Excerpt of NARC’s “Aspirations for the Future” in their article “The Role of the National Association for Retarded Children in Programs of Education and Training”

The journal article written by Stringham and Sengstock of the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC) explains their role and goals for supporting children with disabilities and their families specifically in the state and federal education system. The document walks through the history of the organization, their goals for the future, the organizations beliefs and policies, and how these things are implemented in order to best serve the children in need. NARC outlined curriculum for both teacher training and students, highlighted the important of special education programs, and vocational school services as a way of enhancing student’s educational needs. As The Disability Rights Movement was beginning to increase in activism and national support, this article was published. This is important because many activists in The Disability Rights Movement were fighting for equal opportunity in education, housing, and employment. NARC, therefore, was supporting these activists by providing concrete goals and objectives for the future of education for children with special needs.

1977: “Patient No More” Kitty Cone’s Victory Speech

Kitty Cone was one of the many leaders of the 504 Sit-In in California in 1977. The 504 Sit-In, as briefly talked about in the introduction, was over a span of two weeks. The sit-in was a large group of empowered individuals with disabilities who gathered to fight for their civil rights and their future in the United States. The video above is Kitty Cone’s “Patient No More” victory speech after the sit-in was successful in getting Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act passed. Her speech was originally an audio recording, but was translated to a video of the speech in American Sign Language by the Longmore Institute on Disability in order for those who are hard of hearing. This speech is vital to the history of disabilities in this country because it highlights the nations most beautiful moments. When a group of people comes together, support each other while fighting for a common goal. Not only was the sit-in a successful form of protest, it helped create important change for this community and even more importantly, individuals with disabilities proved they can stand up for themselves and their people in order to create this change.


1977: HolLynn DLil’s “Becoming Real in 24 Days: One Participants Story of the 1977 Section 504 Demonstration for Disability Rights”

Front and back cover of HolLynn DLil’s “Becoming Real in 24 Days: One Participants Story of the 1977 Section 504 Demonstration for Disability Rights” memoir

HolLynn DLil was an activist in the Section 504 Demonstration. She decided to write a memoir about her experience as a participant in the Disability Rights Movement, specifically in the sit-in in San Francisco in 1977. The sit-in, as talked about above, was two weeks long in order to get Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act passed. They were fighting for Section 504, as it would be the only law protecting individuals with disabilities and their civil rights. Her memoir moves through all 24 days of the sit-in, one day of a time, with photographs, and details from each day. Her memoir is important, as it is an activist in the disabilities movement having autonomy and displaying her first person narrative of her experience of the sit in.

1990: Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is one of the most important laws for people with disabilities. Above is a short excerpt from a very long piece of legislation. The ADA states that in no case may individuals with disabilities be discriminated against in public spaces. It gives individuals with disabilities civil rights and equal opportunities in places such as their place of employment, schools, transportation, and other public areas. This piece of legislation is important in the history of people with disabilities in the US because this law is what came of the long and hard fight of The Disability Rights Movement in the 1960s. This is referred to in the short video by PBS called Lives Worth Living, attached below, and gives important information as to why the ADA was such an important piece of legislation. The video includes interviews of individuals with disabilities and also shows live footage from protests and rally’s within the Disability Rights Movement.

2000: “Does This Boy Deserve Asylum?” by Labi and Cray

This article in Time magazine titled “Does This Boy Deserve Asylum” highlights the continuing struggle in the most recent history of disability rights in the US. This article published in 2000 describes the fears and anxieties that people continue to have when they see someone in public who doesn’t fit societal norms. The article describes and attached a picture of a boy in a helmet, mouth guard, and gloves that he wears in order to prevent him from harming himself. He had never hurt anyone else but as soon as people see him they think he is “mad” and would continuously hide their children from him (Labi & Cray, 2000: 92). The document discusses how his Autism Spectrum diagnoses may affect his immigration status. This document will show that in 2000 there was still a fight for the human rights of people with disabilities, including details from court cases that are deciding this young boys future as an immigrant based off of perceptions and fears of disabilities.

Primary Sources

American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded. American Journal of Mental Deficiency 23 (1918): 11-31. Accessed November 14, 2018.

Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990)

“Beginnings.” 1848. Education Exhibit – Museum of DisABILITY History. 2014. Accessed October 25, 2018.

“Better Baby Contest.” Eugenics Exhibit – Museum of DisABILITY History. 2014. Accessed October 25, 2018.

Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).

Kitty Cone. 1977. Recorded by Lucy Muir. Video published by Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability. Patient No More: Kitty Cone Victory Speech. July 16, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2018.

DLil, HolLynn. Becoming Real in 24 Days: One Participant’s Story of the 1977 Section 504 Demonstration for Disability Rights. Hallavaland Productions, 2015.

Goddard, Henry Herbert. The Kallikak Family; a Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness, HathiTrust: Digital Library. 1919. Accessed November 14, 2018.;view.

Kennedy, John F. Special Message On Mental Illness And Mental Retardation. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. February 5, 1963. Accessed November 20, 2018.

Labi, Nadya, and Dan Cray. 2000. “Does This Boy Deserve Asylum?” Time 156 (16): 90. Accessed November 14, 2018.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. An Address On Rehabilitation Of The Mentally And Physically Handicapped. Disability History Museum. July 13, 1929. Accessed October 25, 2018.

Sanger, Margaret. The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda. Birth Control Review 5, no. 10 (October 1921): 5. Accessed November 14, 2018.;view=1up;seq=73.

Stringham, Luther W., and Sengstock, Wayne, L. “The Role of the National Association for Retarded Children in Programs of Education and Training.” Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded 1, no. 1 (1966): 18-23.

Zahn, Gordan. Slaves or Patients? Disability History Museum. October 1946. Accessed November 14, 2018.

Secondary Sources:

AAIDD. (2018). Use of Mental Retardation on this Website. Retrieved December 19, 2018, from

Annas, George J. 1984. “The Case of Baby Jane Doe: Child Abuse or Unlawful Federal Intervention?” American Journal of Public Health 74 (July): 727–29.

Burgin, Say. 2018. “HIST 118 Class Lecture.” October 10, 2018. Department of History, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

Burgin, Say. 2018. “HIST 118 Class Lecture.” September 27, 2018. Department of History, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

Cepko, Roberta. 1993. “Involuntary Sterilization of Mentally Disabled Women”, Berkley Women’s Law Journal.  Accessed November 14, 2018.

Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. (2014). Buck v. Bell: The Test Case for Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act. Retrieved December 19, 2018, from

Grim, A. (2015, July 08). Sitting-in for disability rights: The Section 504 protests of the 1970s. Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

McNeese, Tim, and William N. Myhill. 2014. Disability Rights Movement. Essential Library of Social Change. [Place of publication not identified]: Abdo Publishing.

Meldon, P. (2017, December 1). Disability History: The Disability Rights Movement (U.S. National Park Service). Retrieved December 18, 2018, from

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). 2011. Lives Worth Living: Like an Emancipation Proclamation for the Disabled. Accessed November 14, 2018.

Turnbull Iii, H. Rutherford1, 2012. “‘Free at Last’: Kennedy, King, and the Meaning of Liberty in the Disability Rights Movement.” Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 37 (3): 210–16.

© 2019 Modern US History

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑