The ADA was passed on July 26, 1990 so this year is the 28th anniversary. Here is the anniversary website for the ADA beyond their just regular site if you want more anniversary information. https://www.adaanniversary.org/
When he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky state: “George Bush proclaimed ‘Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.’” (p.1)
The history of disabilities and the ADA did not begin on July 26, 1990 at the signing ceremony at the White House. It did not begin in 1988 when the first ADA was introduced in Congress. The struggles for equality go back much farther.
Looking back, our approach to people with disabilities has been less than desirable; there is a long history of abuse, discrimination and lack of compassion and understanding. One could also argue that throughout history there have been many forms of discrimination of those with disabilities and that included such perceived disabilities as being a minority race, female poor.
For the early tribes and nomads, survival was paramount. It is not exactly known for sure how a person with a disability was cared for; there has been some research that indicates they were cared for. Then again early live was a matter of survival, if an individual was unable to join in hunting and gathering, they were of no use and as the tribe moved on the disabled were left behind if they couldn’t keep up.
The following is a summary timeline:
Greek Empire: Were obsessed with human perfection.
· They believed beauty and intelligence were intertwined. This may have laid the ground work for future beliefs.
· Societies attempted to rationalize disabilities with ideas such as Meggie Shreve wrote in her research: “people who were deaf could not learn because communication was essential to learning.” (para 3)
Roman Empire: Developed a similar attitude to the Greeks.
· Romans considered the disabled inferior.
· There was no Latin word for “disabled”, so the Romans used the word “monstrum” which was the word used for mythical monsters.
· According to the Disability History Exhibit web site: “response to disability: Abandonment, Exposure, Mutilation.” (Alaskan D.H. & S.S. 2011)
· A disability was a mark of the god’s wrath.
· In many cases it was up to the father if a disabled child was to live or die. The disabled child was often taken and left naked in the woods.
· The attitude was to kill quickly
· In Sparta, children were the property of the state, not the parents and by law abandonment of a disabled child was mandatory.
Fall of Roman: The rise of Christianity.
· This was time of increased sympathy and pity towards the disabled.
· This period of compassion would soon be replaced by fear.
Middle Ages : (approx. 1060-1490) A time of social oppression, economic hardship and intellectual decline.
· Describing society, Shreve wrote: “became fearful of people with disabilities as their attraction to the attraction of the supernatural increased.” (para. 5)
· Those born with disabilities became outcasts and homeless beggars.
· Those born with disabilities were considered evil and a disability was the work of the devil as punishment for sins.
· Institutions developed more to hide the disabled than to treat, and conditions were less than humane.
Renaissance: (approx. 1400’s thru 1600’s) Increase in religious influence
· There was a change in the treatment of the disabled with the introduction of medical care and institutionalization.
· Many of the disabled were cared for by monks and religious organizations.
· Shreve claims: “People with disabilities were ridiculed, such as a court jester who was actually someone with a humped back.” (para. 5)
· Under King James I, creation of Bethlem Royal Hospital, Europe’s first psychiatric hospital
1700’s: Disabilities were common place.
· Start of industrial revolution.
· Long hours, in dangerous working conditions. No job safety regulations.
· Poor medical facilities
· Bloody battles, leaving many with permanent disabilities.
In an article by Stephen Weisman, he writes: “in the 18th century, having a disability was a death sentence in some instances.” Weisman goes on to report: “those who weren’t able to work were often left destitute and without other options aside from begging.”
· Many could not afford to have assistive devices made.
· They were the subjects of public mockery and scorn.
1800’s: those unable to fend for themselves were left to wander the streets, becoming beggars.
· The number of people homeless and living on the streets became a social issue and new policies developed. As described by the Alaskan Department Health and Social Services, Disability History Exhibit: “Moral Viewpoint – Persons who lived in extreme poverty, including many with physical or mental disabilities were often put into poorhouses or almshouses. Such establishments, supported by public funds, began in the Middle Ages as a means of removing economic outcasts from society.”(panel 6)
· Social and moral changes during this time brought training schools for the disabled bringing some relief to families of the disabled.
At the end of the Civil War job opportunities for those completing training dwindled.
Twentieth Century: Rhonda Neuhaus, Cindy Smith, Molly Burgdorf on the American Bar Association web site wrote: “the laws of the United States devalued persons with disabilities as society as a whole viewed such persons as a group of people to be pitied, ridiculed, rejected, and feared, or as objects of fascination. Persons with disabilities were seen as objects of charity or welfare or as needing to be subjected to medical treatment or cure.”
· 1907 Immigration Act
o People found by an examining surgeon to be mentally or physically defective, affecting their ability to earn a living, were not permitted to enter the country, often even with family members.
o There was a fear of making the U.S. a country of defectives.
· Late in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century a number of cities passed what were known as “Ugly Laws”. These laws made it illegal for any person diseased, maimed, mutilated or disfigured in any way to show themselves in public view. The last city to repeal ugly laws was Chicago in 1974.
· At the turn of century many families who had a child with a disability kept them hidden or they were sent to an institution and they were often forgotten. A disability in many cases was a family embarrassment.
o With the advent of industrialization of the world, more than not the disabled were institutionalized. As Shreve explains: “society believed people with disabilities might be educated, but usually in “special” schools, far from urban or heavily populated areas.” (para. 7)
· In the Midwestern U.S. county fairs commonly entertained spectators by presenting oddities such as the “bearded women, the dog faced boy, giants, dwarves, five legged calves and learned pigs.” Fair promoters quickly learned that fair goers were so captivated by this mangled miscellany of humans and animal “oddities” that the “sideshow was born and became instrumental to the fairs and popularized the term “Freaks” and the “Freak Show”. Longmore and Umansky wrote: “so-called exhibitions, displays of the disfigured, disabled, or exaggerated bodies masquerading under the guise of scientific enlightenment.”(p. 178)
o It should be noted that one plus to the sideshows was that this gave people with disabilities a source of income and a feeling of community.
· 1930’s The rise of Hilter and the so called “Master Race”
o Perhaps the greatest abuse of the disabled.
o Those with physical deformities and in particular those with mental disabilities were subject to brutal experimentation and used as human guinea pigs.
o There is no record as to how many were put to death. Shreve reports: “Jews, Gays and Lesbians and other minorities and their supporters and people with disabilities were put to death by Hitler’s concentration camp staff.” (para. 8), anyone who failed Hitler’s view of the superior race.
· 1933 Franklin Roosevelt elected president.
o Roosevelt tried to hide his disability, but most people knew and he inspired many people with disabilities.
o Roosevelt created a nonprofit foundation, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation
· 1938 Passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Employers may pay lower wages to employees whose productivity is limited due to physical or mental disability.
· 1946 The National Mental Health Foundation; Helped to expose the abusive conditions at state mental institutions and became an early advocate for people with disabilities to live in community settings rather than institutions. The precursor to de-institutionalization.
· 1947 First ever meeting of the President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. It began an ad campaign emphasizing the competence of people with disabilities.
· 1953 In-home care for adults with polio as a cost savings began in Los Angeles County.
· 1954 The office of Vocational Rehabilitation provided federal funds for over 100 university based rehabilitation programs.
· 1958 The Rehabilitation Gazette began publication, focusing on disability rights across the US. Many of its articles were written by disabled writers on their experiences.
· 1961 The American National Standard Institute (ANSI) this became the basis for architectural codes of accessibilities.
· 1962 The President’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped became the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped; there was increasing interest relating to employment for people with cognitive disabilities and mental illness.
Edwards Roberts sued and gained admission to Berkeley. Surviving polio, Roberts used a wheel chair and iron lung. He became the first university student admitted with a significant disability.
· 1964 Passage of the Civil Rights Act which became the inspiration for future disabilities rights legislation.
Invention of the “acoustic coupler”, leading to the telephone modem which allowed type written message across telephone and that in turn paved the way for the today’s “TTY communication, allowing the deaf and hard of hearing to use the telephone.
· The National Technical Institute for the Deaf was created at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.
· 1967 The National Theatre of the Deaf was established.
· 1968 Passage of the Architectural Barriers Act, required all federally owned or leased buildings to be accessible to the disabled.
· 1970 The Urban Mass Transit Act required all new mass transit vehicles to be equipped with a wheel chair lift.
the Physically Disabled Students Program (PDSP) founded by John Hessler, Ed Roberts, Hale Zukas and other from Berleley. Promoted community living, personal assistance programs and political advocacy, was the foundation for the nation’s first Center for Independent Living.
Judith Heumann founded the Disabled in Action in New York City after a successful lawsuit against the city’s public school system for employment discrimination.
Passage of Developmental Disabilities Service and Facilities Construction Amendments, contained the nation’s first definition of “Developmental Disabilities” and provided grants for facilities for the rehabilitation for people with developmental disabilities.
· 1971 WGBH a public television station in Boston begin providing “Closed Captioned” programming for deaf viewers.
Wyatt v. Stickney, the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama decided that people in residential state schools and institutions have a constitutional right to receive such individual treatment as would give them a realistic opportunity to be cured or to improve his or her mental condition. Disabled people could no longer be locked away in institutions without treatment or education.
· 1972 The US District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled the school system could not exclude disabled children from attending public schools. In the same year the District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania struck down a number of state laws used to exclude children with disabilities from public schools. These rulings worked to inspire passage of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975.
Disabled activists in New York City and other cities around the country held demonstrations to protest Nixon’s veto of the Rehabilitation Act.
Outraged by a television broadcast from Willow Brook State School in Staten Island; parents of the residents filled suit to end the deplorable conditions at the institution. Thousands of people were relocated to community based living arrangements.
The Center for Independent Living was found in Berkeley, California. It is recognized as the first center for independent living.
The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law was founded in Washington, DC. Its mission is to provide legal representation and advocate for the rights of people with mental illness.
· 1973 Passage of the Rehabilitation Act. The law states, “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, shall solely by reason of his handicap, be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This was intended to prohibit discrimination in federallly funded programs and services.
Passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act; Provided government funding for the construction of curb cuts.
The first handicapped parking sticker was introduced in Washington, DC.
· 1974The First Client Assistant Project (CAPs) to advocate for clients of state vocational rehabilitation agencies.
The first convention of People First held in Salem, Oregon, became the largest People First organization. It was led by people with cognitive disabilities.
The city of Chicago repealed that city’s Ugly laws. (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/ugly-laws/)
· 1975 Passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act; allowed the right of disabled children to be integrated into a public school environment. This was later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).
The founding of Parent and Training Information Centers (PTIs) was established to assist parents of disabled children to exercise their rights under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.
The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities was founded. It became an important cross-disability rights organization of the 1970s by pulling together disability rights groups representing blind, deaf, physically disabled, and developmentally disabled people.
The Supreme Court ruled that people could not be held against their will, or placed in a psychiatric hospital institution, unless they are proven to be a threat to themselves or to others. (O’Connor v. Donaldson)
· 1976 Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1972, provided for services for the physically disabled students entering college.
The Cerebral Palsy telethon in New York City is picketed by “Disabled in Action” calling the event the telethon “demeaning and paternalistic shows which celebrate and encourage pity.”
· 1977 Disability rights activists in ten cities staged demonstrations and occupations of the offices of the federal department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) to force the Carter
Administration to issue regulations implementating Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The demonstration in San Francisco lasted nearly a month. One 28 April, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signed the regulations.
The first ever White House Conference to discuss federal policies towards people with disabilities. The conference brought together 3,000 individuals with disabilities and was the beginning of a grassroots disabilities right organization.
· 1978 A sit-in demonstration by disability rights activists was held, blocking the Denver Regional Transit Authority buses due to the inaccessibility of the mass transit system. The year-long protest forced the Denver Transit Authority to invest in wheelchair lift buses.
Passage of VII of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments provided for the first federal funding for the Centers for Independent Living (CILs) creating the National Council of the Handicapped through the Dept. of Education.
· 1979 The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is founded in Madison Wisconsin for the parents of persons having a mental illness.
· 1980 Congress passes the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. This allowed the Justice department to file suit on behalf of those institutionalized whose rights may have been violated.
The US Supreme Court ruled that Southeastern Community College must make “reasonable modifications” for qualified disabled individuals while receiving federal funding. This was test of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is an important principle of disability rights law.
· 1981 The International Year of Disabled Persons began with speeches before the United Nations General Assembly. During the year, governments were encouraged to sponsor programs bringing people with disabilities into the mainstream of their societies
· 1985 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, that localities cannot use zoning laws to prohibit group homes for people with developmental disabilities from opening in a residential area because its residents are disabled.
· 1986 The National Council on the Handicapped issued “Toward Independence.” The report outlined the legal status of Americans with disabilities, documented the existence of discrimination, and cited the need for federal civil rights legislation (what will eventually be passed as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).
· 1988 The Fair Housing Amendments Act added people with disabilities to those groups protected by federal fair housing legislation. It established minimum standards of adaptability for newly constructed multiple-dwelling housing.
· 1989 The original version of the Americans with Disabilities Act, introduced into Congress the previous year, was redrafted and reintroduced. Disability organizations across the country advocated on its behalf.
· 1990 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. It prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life—to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local Programs and services.
· 1995 The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that continued institutionalization of a disabled Pennsylvania woman, when not medically necessary and when there is the option of home care, was a violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Helen L. v. Snider).
Disability rights advocates viewed this ruling as a landmark decision regarding the rights of people in nursing homes to instead live in their own home and receive personal assistance services.
· 2004 The first ever Disability Pride Parade was held in Chicago and other communities around the country.
2006 The first bill requiring that students in a K-12 public school system be taught the history of the disability rights movement is passed, largely due to the efforts of 20 young people with disabilities from the state of West Virginia
2010 According to FBI 1.5% of hate crimes are due to bias against disabled.
Rosa’s Law, which changed references in many federal statutes that referred to “mental retardation” to make them refer, instead, to “intellectual disability“, became law in the U.S.
2011 Delta fined for violating rules protecting air travelers with disabilities
2011 On March 15, 2011, new Americans with Disabilities Act rules came into effect. These rules expanded accessibility requirements for recreational facilities such as swimming pools, golf courses, exercise clubs, and boating facilities. They also set standards for the use of wheelchairs and other mobility devices like Segways in public spaces, and changed the standards for things such as selling tickets to events and reserving accessible hotel rooms. The new rules also clearly defined “service animal” as “…any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” This portion of the law also states that the services the service animal provides must be “directly related to the handler’s disability” and dogs that provide only emotional support or crime deterrence cannot be defined as service animals.
2014 Employees of federal service and concession contractors with disabilities who had been paid less than minimum wage under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act were included in an executive order (signed in 2014) raising the minimum wage for employees of federal service and concession contractors to $10.10 an hour.
2016 An ethics rule of the American Bar Association now forbids comments or actions that single out someone on the basis of disability, as well as other factors.
Disclaimer: We acknowledge there are events which may have not been included on this time.
Alaska Department of Health & Social Services. (2001) Disability History Exhibit Retrieved June, 2018 from: http://hss.state.ak.us/gcdse/history/HTML_Content_Main.htm.
Longmore, Paul, K. & Umansky Lauri.(2001). The New Disability History, American Perspectives. New York: University Press.
Neuhaus, Rhonda, Smith, Cindy, Burgdorf, Molly. (2014). Equality for People with Disabilities, Then and Now. Vol. 31 No. 6. Published by the American Bar Association. Retrieved from:
Shreve, Maggie. (1982). The Movement for Independent Living: A Brief History. Attitudes Started It All. ILUSA, Retrieved from: http://www.ilusa.com/articles/mshreve_article_ilc.htm
Weisman, Stephen. (2018). Living with a disability in the 18th century. Retrieved from: http://history1700s.com/index.php/articles/14-guest-authors/1670-living-with-a-disability-in-the-18th-century.htm
Additional Information gather from:
Author Unknown. Disability Rights History Timeline. Retrieved from: http://www.yodisabledproud.org/organize/docs/PRIDE/5_High_School/Unit_3_High/3_1h-History_Timeline.pdf
Brignell, Victoria. (2008). Ancient World. From: The New Statesman website.
Gracer, Bonnie L.(2003). What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah. From: Disability Studies Quarterly website.
NCLD. Timeline.National. Consortium on Leader and Disability for Youth. The Institute for Educational Leadership. Washington, DC. Retrieved from: http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61
PAEC. (2018). Timeline of Events, Legislation, and Literature that have Affected the Lives of Persons with Disabilities. Panhandle Area Educational Consortium. Florida. Retrieved from: https://www.paec.org/disabilityhistoryawareness/pdfs/Timeline.pdf
Timeline of disability rights in the United States. https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/Timeline_of_disability_rights_in_the_United_States.html
For more useful information on this topic visit:
Reckase, Will. (2013).Disability in Ancient Rome. https://www.rootedinrights.org/disability-in-ancient-rome/