As with every other civil rights movement, the fight for disability rights is one that challenges negative attitudes and pushes back against oppression. But it is also more complex.
Often the movement has diverged into a constellation of single-issue groups that raise awareness of specific disabilities. It has also converged into cross-disability coalitions that increasingly include intersections of race, gender and sexual orientation.
Regardless, the prevailing demands of the movement are the same: justice, equal opportunities and reasonable accommodations.
Though it is difficult to distill modern disability history in one thread, here are a handful of moments that have stood out in the collective memories of disability advocates.
1940-70: A Growing Spirit of Independence
The earliest disability law in the United States dates from pensions guaranteed for men wounded in the Revolutionary War.
“You tend to have a grateful nation that wants to figure out how to help them reincorporate themselves to society,” said Heather Ansley, the associate executive director of government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
By the 1940s, rubella and polio were on the rise, further raising awareness of disabilities.
Summer camps and rehabilitation centers were established to provide nurturing environments. In the 1960s and ’70s, friendships were cultivated among a generation of people who would go on to become some of the foremost activists of the modern civil rights movement.
Ed Roberts was among those top activists. He was the first student who used a wheelchair to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Because there were no accessible dormitories, he lived in Cowell, the campus hospital. He inspired the blueprint for the first Center for Independent Living. There are now 403 C.I.L.s that are run by and for people with disabilities who live independently of nursing homes and other institutions.