Introduction to the History of Disabilities in the US

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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.