Disability Rights History

Disability in and of itself is not a new concept. While modern medicine has increased the likelihood of living with a disability, thousands of years ago, disabled individuals were fighting for their rights to be heard. While progress has been made, we must look to history that is not taught in the American school system to bring awareness of the accumulation of stigma placed on disabled individuals. Awareness of historical facts brings inner changes that can cause societal movements in the community. By realizing that the issue of disability rights has a longstanding and cultural identity, we can change narratives regarding taboos surrounding the community. The Commission is hopeful that disability rights will continue to be heard in future history and move forward in the advancement of equality embedded into civil processes.

Below is an overview of disability history, while this only is a small sample of the vast historical knowledge we have, these bullets serve as a intro to the larger history. While learning history is critical, current events affecting the disability community are also incredibly important to know. Go to current events on this page or view our page detailing news here.


  • 3500 BC: The Rig-Veda, is believed to be the first record of an amputee using a prosthetic device. Queen Vishpla loses her leg in battle and returns to the fight with an iron prosthesis.

  • 355 BC: the philosopher Aristotle said those "born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason."


  • 1616: G. Bonifacio publishes a treatise discussing sign language, "Of the Art of Signs.”

  • 1696: Pieter Andriannszoon Verduyn creates the first non-locking, below knee prosthesis.


  • 1755: Samuel Heinicke establishes first school for the deaf in the world in Germany. Charles Michel Abbedel'Epee establishes first free school for the deaf in the world, Paris, France.

  • 1776: Stephen Hopkins, a man with cerebral palsy, is one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

  • 1777: Arnoldi, a German pastor, believes education of the deaf should begin as early as four years.

  • 1784: Abba Silvestri opens first school for the deaf in Italy in Rome.

  • 1790: Philippe Pinel along with Jean-Baptiste Pussin in France recognizes the inhuman treatment of those with mental illnesses and physically releases them from chains and shackles. They also start the idea to treat mental illness with psychological counseling instead of abuse.


  • 1815: Education for the deaf is realized in America. The first school for the deaf, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons is established in Hartford, Connecticut

  • 1829: The first raised point alphabet is invented for blind individuals by Louis Braille, a blind student. The technique is largely ignored for many years, but now his technique is still used today.

  • 1861-1865: While the exact number is not known, in American Civil War there are about 30,000 amputations on the Union side and 30,000 on the Confederates. This is the most common surgical procedure in the war and leads to greater awareness about disability once these men come home. The US quickly realizes that there is a large number of maimed soldiers, leading to new developments and production of many artificial limbs.

  • Mid-1800s to early-1900s: Disabled people earn money by appearing in freak shows and carnivals throughout England and the United States. Some view this as benefiting disabled people by allowing them to earn money, while others see it as exploitative because disabled people are merely used to profit others. Many disabled people were only children when they were coerced to Appear at carnivals by Barnum and Bailey. Freak shows of disabled people still happen as of 2019 on Coney Island.

  • 1880: Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf is held. This conference detailed that oral learning was superior to signing and forced deaf schools to dismiss all deaf teachers for those who taught orally.

  • Late 1880’s: Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf is held. This conference detailed that oral learning was superior to signing and forced deaf schools to dismiss all deaf teachers for those who taught orally.


  • Through early-1900s: Eugenics rises in popularity as more people begin to believe that the human race should control its evolution by sterilizing those with “defective” genetics, including the disabled. The movement is funded by prominent foundations and individuals such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution, and J.H. Kellogg. It is also commonly taught in university courses through the first several decades of the 1900s. Many states in the U.S. pass laws prohibiting disabled people from marrying or mandating forced sterilization.

  • 1918: in response to World War II disabled veterans, congress passes the Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of 1918. This act helps provide education for jobs and financial support. Unfortunately, many disabled veterans are still treated poorly in America.

  • 1919: Edgar Allan forms an organization for disabled individuals. Today, this organization is known as Easterseals and provides services to the disabled, but this organization has perpetuated the medical model that disabled individuals are less than in society and must be fixed.


  • 1927: The Supreme Court rules that compulsory sterilization of mentally disabled people is constitutional in Buck v. Bell. Notably, this ruling has never been overturned despite its obvious inhumaneness. In his opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "(It) is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind...Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

  • 1930s: The League of the Physically Handicapped is created to help disabled people fight for employment during the Great Depression.


  • 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes the first physically disabled man to become president. He was a great advocate for rehabilitation efforts in the US

  • 1934: pJacobus tenBroek–blind since age 14–forms the California Council of the Blind with Dr. Newel Perry and others. This later becomes the National Federation of the Blind of California.

  • 1935: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduces the Social Security Act, which aided those in poverty and retirement. It has evolved to provide support for disabled people.

  • 1935: League for the Physically Handicapped is created to fight discrimination and is the first organization run by disabled people for disabled people.

  • 1935: The Home Boroughs of New York discriminates by marking employment applications as physically handicapped. If marked applicants were deemed unemployable. The League for the Physically Handicapped have a nine-day protest, refusing to leave. They won the protest and helped thousands secure jobs.

  • 1939: Near the beginning of World War II Adolf Hitler orders the killing of sick and disabled people. Code-named Aktion T4, the Nazi program is meant to eliminate "life unworthy of life." While the exact number is unknown, around 250,000 people with intellectual or physical disabilities are systematically killed. Even after the end of the Aktion T4, hundreds more disabled individuals are killed through starvation, medical experimentation, and soldier training practice.

  • 1939: Lou Gehrig day is founded and Gehrig who has been diagnosed with ALS, gives a speak at his home stadium in New York City.

  • 1940s: A group of patients at Rockland State Hospital in New York came together to form We Are Not Alone. They created a network of disabled patients that could help give advice to one another, especially in the process of returned home after being an inpatient.


  • 1941: Rosemary Kennedy, the oldest sister of President John F. Kennedy, was disabled and experienced seizures. Her father worried that she would cause a scandal and affect his and his sons’ political careers, and thus secretly had a lobotomy performed on her. This fails and left her with the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old. She was institutionalized and her condition was kept secret from both the public and the rest of the family. Her father never visited her, and her siblings only became aware of her location in the 1960s. The public was not aware of the lobotomy until 1987.

  • 1948: The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City is created and still operates to this day, as well as other models across the USA. The institute is the first completely dedicated to rehabilitation and was specifically made for veterans that had been severely injured. The institute focused on both the physical health as well as the vast changes that cause emotional, mental, psychological, and social trauma.

  • 1950: The Barrier Free Movement began because of the increased number of disabled veterans; pressure rose on a system that was stacked against them. Disabled veterans from World War II as well as other in the disability community advocated for government policies to remove barriers for buildings.

  • 1950: The ARC is founded to change perceptions regarding people with intellectual disabilities. At the time most intellectually disabled individuals Were immediately moved to an institution. The ARC was founded by parents that refused to let this happen anymore. The ARC has since advocated to create laws and public policy that benefits the disability community.


  • 1953: Clemens Benda and Earle Chapman, geo Harvard medical school faculty members gave radioactive isotopes disguised in cereal to boys in an institution for disabled individuals. They gave 100 boys with intellectual disabilities radioactive materials to eat without informing anyone to study the effects of radioactive materials in the human body.

  • 1954: Brown v Board of Education institutes the civil rights for black students and starts to clear the way for disabled students and their civil rights.  


  • 1961: The first building code is published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to standardize Accessibility Of buildings. 49 states accept this code by 1973

  • 1962: Ed Roberts becomes a disability activist for college campuses across the US after applying to Berkeley and being rejected because of his disability. He fights to attend and eventually creates the accessible features and tools he needs to attend college. He graduates and later goes on to establish The Center for Independent Living, now hundreds are across the US. Roberts graduated with a bachelors and then a Master of Political Science.

  • 1963: The Community Mental Health Act creates mental health community-based centers to help disabled individuals and keep them out of institutionalization.

  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act is passed. Unfortunately the act only includes African Americans and women. Other minority groups including those with disabilities advocate to also receive equal access for employment and equal opportunities. The Civil Rights Act is used as a template for the future ADA Act.

  • 1964: Teletype (TTY) Communication is merged in the telephone by a deaf scientist named Robert Weitbrecht. This is still used today.

  • 1965: Medicaid is created to help pay for exorbitant medical costs for people with disabilities.

  • 1968: The first International Special Olympics Games are held in Chicago Illinois only 6 years after they are created in 1962 for those with intellectual disabilities.

  • 1968: The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 is passed. This act opens doors for disabled individuals to be employees and be able to participate fully with companies that lease with federal funds.

  •  1970: July Heumann was a disability rights activist blazing the way for education opportunities. She was denied the right to attend school in the 4th grade because her wheelchair was a fire hazard. Later after winning the fight to attend public school, she was again told she could not teach elementary school because she would be a fire hazard to herself and the children. She won the court case and became a teacher. She also founded Disabled in Action organization and developed legislation of the IDEA Act for students with disabilities


  • 1973: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law making it illegal for public entities to discriminate was written but not implemented. Both Nixon and Ford presidencies proceeded to stall the section from passing.

  • 1974: in Chicago Illinois the Last of "Ugly Laws" were Repealed. These laws had been in place since the late 1800s and stated, "any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view." It was illegal for someone with a disability to be in public and individuals were detained because of it.

  • 1974: The first intersection organization of women and disability was formed at UC Berkeley. The Disabled Women's Coalition was founded by Susan Sygall and Deborah Kaplan. They created a prominent space to further advocacy for women with disabilities.

  • 1974: Association of the Deaf did the first census of deaf Americans numbering 1.8 million.

  • 1975: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is instituted created a law that states all children have access to a free public education.

  • 1975: Willowbrook State School was found to be inhumane for people with intellectual disabilities. The institution housed intellectually disabled individuals and did not do any schooling. Individuals were often left in the dark, naked, covered in their own fecal matter, and otherwise neglected. A doctor, Saul Krugman subjected the individuals to infection of hepatitis to do human experimentation for 20 years. Disease was rampant and sexual abuse was very common. Patients were brutally beaten by employees.  After the abuse is brought to light, it takes seven years for the school to be shut down by two reporters that venture in and document conditions.

  •  1976:  Sesame Street, a children’s educational show, begins to introduce inclusive culture to the community. Linda Bove, a deaf actress, played the librarian for 31 years signing ASL and showing the normalization of disability in society. Many other disabled individuals appear on the show.

  • 1976: Jimmy Carter runs off a platform that included signing a vital disability rights act, Section 504 into place. This act had been notoriously delayed by former government. The disability community continues to advocate that Section 504 is vital. The law is delayed further for review.

  • Jan 1, 1977: Carter gets into office but immediately puts off Section 504 and government officials began to change wording with any input from disabled citizens

  • April 5, 1977: The longest sit-in Of American History is held. For an entire month disability activist, led by Judy Heumann, protest the San Francisco Health, Education Welfare Department because Section 504 was still not being signed.  The historic demonstrations were triumphant, and Carter signed section 504 into law.  (04-May-1977) The Section 504 regulations were issued. Kitty Cone, a participant said “disability really was looked at as an issue of civil rights rather than an issue of charity and rehabilitation at best, pity at worst”

  • 1978: Disability Activists Protest Inaccessibility of Denver Buses

  • Disability activists demonstrate to provide their voice in public transportation. In Colorado, disabled individuals blocked buses from moving.

  • 1978: In California, Fiesta Educativa is organized to provide resources for families with disabled children. This is one of the first disabled organizations specifically for Spanish speakers.

  • 1978: The National Council on Disability is created and provides a platform of inclusion for those with disabilities. This was created to help disabled individuals become active members in society by eliminating barriers.

  • 1980: The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) is created so that the Department of Justice can now sue state or local institutions that violate the rights of people who are institutionalized.

  • 1980: The term Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is included for the first time in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


  • 1982: "Baby Doe" is born with Down's syndrome. The doctors say the baby should be allowed to die instead of giving a lifesaving surgery for his esophagus. The baby was not given food or water and allowed to die because he was intellectually disabled. The Baby Doe Act was legislated because of this and now the law says that a disabled child cannot be abused or refused lifesaving treatment.

  • 1982: a general assembly of the UN is held on disability rights. They create “The World Program of Action Concerning the Disabled"

  • 1982: The National Organization on Disability (NOD) is founded by Alan A. Reich, a prominent international disability advocate. They fight for inclusion and full participation in society. For instance, they advocate that a statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt (with his wheelchair) is created.

  • 1983: Americans with Disabilities for Accessible Public Transportation, (ADAPT) is created to raise awareness for lifts and ramps for public transportation. They began a nationwide protest, blocking buses around the nation to demonstrate discrimination. Transportation is then included in the ADA Act.

  • 1986: The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination of all disabled individuals on public planes.

  • 1988: the community of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. organize a week-long protest on campus demanding the selection of a deaf president. Dr. I. King Jordan is named president.

  • 1988: The Fair Housing Amendments Act ensures all new housing units whether public or private must have a certain number of accessible units.  

  • 1988: Paul Longmore, a writer of disability history is denied medical benefits as an author receiving royalties and burns his book outside the Los Angeles Social Security Office to protest..

  • 1988: Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 is passed. This vastly increases funding for vital technology tools for the disability community.

  • 1989: Larry McAfee became a C1 tetraplegic and was granted permission by Georgia to die by turning off his life support ventilator. He was also institutionalized, and disability rights activists with similar disabilities thought if he had better accommodations he might want to live. He was given technology and devices that allowed him to become more independent. After receiving these tools, he instead became a disability rights advocate. His story provides the framework for how we view what we should provide to disabled individuals in society.

  • 1989: In Germany a museum dedicated to the disabled victims of Aktion 14f15, a Nazi euthanasia program

  • 1990: Michael Masutha and William Rowland, South African Disability Activists introduce the slogan now widely used in disability rights, “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis, Nothing About Us Without Us

  • July 26, 1990: The ADA Is signed into law at a national ceremony at the White Couse. The ADA was brought to pass by hundreds of disability activists that refused to be silenced in the face of opposition. The act is a vital piece of human rights law.


  • 1992: The first Youth Leadership Forum for youth with disabilities is hosted in California by the Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons. Soon the U.S. Department of Labor funds other states to develop similar forums.

  • 1995: The American Association of People with Disabilities, a national organization to bring a strong public voice to the disability community is created.

  • 1995: In Africa, two female disabled leaders are elected. Maria Rantho was elected early in 1995 to the government of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Ronah Moyo to the Robert Mugabe government of Zimbabwe. They are respected human rights advocates fighting for the rights of 12 million disabled citizens. They believe that disabled citizens must be represented in government.

  • 1995: Christopher Reeve is paralyzed at C1-C2. He founded the Christopher Reeve foundation, providing resources for spinal cord injuries. He also searches for best treatments and possible cures.

  • Aug 31, 1995: In China, The 4th World Conference on Women is held, including the First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities

  • Dec 26, 1995: The first international conference in Cuba is held. Cuba has been praised for providing inclusion in educational opportunities to students with disabilities, creating programs that allow all students to attend school.

  • 1996: The Telecommunications Act passes through Congress. It mandates that all computers, phones, and other devices are made accessible.

  • 1996: Between 1948 and 1996, over 16,500 people in Japan were sterilized against their will. There had been a eugenics law that allowed for involuntary sterilization of intellectually and mentally disabled people. 17 different community organizations demanded an investigation, compensation, and an apology from the Minister of Health and Welfare on September 16, 1997. However, the Minister refused to apologize because the sterilizations were legal during that time period, regardless of their ethicality.

  • 1998: In Bragdon v. Abbott, the Supreme Court rules that the ADA applies to an HIV-positive woman who was denied service by a dentist because he didn’t want to get the disease himself. The procedure she requested was simply filling a cavity. The ruling showed that people with HIV/AIDS are considered disabled and subject to protection under the ADA.

  • 1998: A federal court ruling states that golfer Casey Martin does have the right to use a golf cart in the PGA Tour tournaments. He is the first professional athlete to play a competitive sport under the provisions of the ADA. He was limited in his ability to walk due to a rare circulatory disorder.

  • 1999: A judge in U.S. District Court issues a court order stating that Ryan Taylor, a nine-year-old with cerebral palsy, must be allowed to play in the Evening Optimist Soccer League in Lawton, Oklahoma. The defendants argued that his walker was a safety hazard, but this concern was solved by padding it during games.

  • 1999: Medicare and Medicaid are made more available under the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvements Act of 1999 (TWWIIA). It specifically ensures that certain disabled beneficiaries will not lose their health insurance when they return to work—addressing the issue that Paul Longmore protested in 1988.

  • 1999: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Olmstead v. L.C. that unnecessarily placing disabled people in an institution is discriminatory and violates the ADA. The justices state that should be put in the "most integrated setting appropriate to their needs." They also say that it is discrimination to not find community-based living for qualifying disabled people.

  • 2000: Prominent scientists announce that The Human Genome Project is nearing completion. Some are excited by the new discoveries and hope they lead to new cures and medical technology, but others are afraid of an “end to all disability.”


  • 2004: The first Disability Pride Parade is organized in Chicago by disability rights organizations and activists. The parade’s goal was to "change the way people think about and define disability, to break down and end the internalized shame among people with disabilities, and to promote the belief in society that disability is a natural and beautiful part of life." The organizers only expected about 500-600 people would attend, but the total was nearly 2,000.

  • 2004: Tennessee v. Lane comes before the Supreme Court. This case dealt with individuals suing the state of Tennessee due to a lack of accessibility at public courthouses. One incident in the case described a plaintiff being arrested when he refused to crawl or be carried upstairs. Tennessee argues that they cannot be sued under Title II of the ADA. The Supreme Court rules in favor of the disabled people, however, saying that Tennessee is liable for damages under Title II by not providing access to the courthouses.

  • 2004: Youth Information Centers (YICs) begin to receive funding from the Administration for Developmental Disabilities. YICs are modeled after Parent Training and Information Centers and are managed by youth leaders with disabilities. These centers provide services to people with disabilities and empower youth to be future leaders.

  • 2005: Governor Bredesen enacts huge cuts to Tennessee's Medicaid System, TennCare. This prompts disability activists to stage a sit-in at his office that lasts 75 days, surpassing the record set by the HEW office sit-in in 1977

  • 2005: Terry Schivao, who had been living in a vegetative state for 15 years, dies at the age of 41 after her husband Michael is allowed to remove her feeding tube. Her parents protest many times, but the feeding tube is removed after a court ruling. The case gains national attention and still influences procedure regarding living wills and other forms of estate planning. Before she became disabled, Schiavo had not prepared any written instructions about how to handle the situation if she were to become severely disabled.

  • 2006: After Irving King Jordan resigns as President of Gallaudet University, students protest the hiring of a non-deaf person to the presidency. They pointed out issues such as her not using American Sign Language (ASL) from birth and her lack of awareness regarding deaf culture.

  • 2006: The activism of 20 young disabled people from West Virginia leads to the first law requiring K-12 students to be taught the history of the disability rights movement

  • 2006: The Road-to-Freedom tour was a bus tour covering all 50 U.S. states that explained the history of the grassroots "people's movement" and other events that preceded the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

  • 2007: Fiona Pilkington, a disabled teenager committed suicide after over a decade of bullying and abuse from local youth. Gangs of teenagers had thrown stones, eggs, and flour at their home. In a suicide note to her mother, Fiona mentioned the bullying: “The street kids [,] well I have just given up. I am just not cut out to take this much harassment.” The family filed 27 separate complaints of abuse with the police between 2004 and 2007. They had also contacted their parliament member on two other occasions. This became an important case for many people because it put the issue of hate crimes regarding disability into the public eye. Now, National Hate Crime Awareness week is commemorated in October.

  • Oct 2009: A 5-year-old with cerebral palsy named Hasanni Campbell, a child is murdered with his foster parents Louis Ross and Jennifer Campbell as the prime suspects. Despite their arrest, they were later freed after not enough evidence was found to convict them.


  • 2011: According to data from the U.S. government, about one in six people with developmental disabilities were institutionalized in 2011. Among people with physical disabilities, one in 53 were living in an institution.

  • 2015: Lead poisoning, known to destroy nerve tissue and create intellectual disability, is found to be a crisis in Flint, Michigan. 42,000 children under 2 years of age were exposed to lead poisoning. Officials tried to hide this fact, inhibiting solutions and help for the community.

  • July 2016: Japan has its deadliest mass killing since World War II. On July 26, 2016 a man with a knife broke into Tsukui Yamayuriena, a home for the disabled. He massacred 19 people as they slept and injured 26 others. the killer then turned himself in and said, “It is better that the disabled disappear.” It is vital to remember this same man also sent a harrowing letter to the Tokyo government just five months before the massacre, urging that disabled people should be killed or euthanized immediately for the sake of the country. After the massacre, human rights activists displayed alarm that Japan was not proactive about the killing. Because of the deep stigmas that still reside against disabled people in Japan, many families do not openly mourn because they did not want to be known as a family that has a disabled family member. Disabled individuals are still marginalized and institutionalized in huge numbers in Japan.

  • 2017: Anne Wafule Strike, a very successful British wheelchair athlete had to urinate on herself because the only accessible bathroom on a cross-country train was out of order. She said: “I was completely robbed of my dignity by the train company. I would like to ask the train company when will they give me my dignity back? As a disabled person I have worked so hard over the years to build up my confidence and self-belief. Having access to a toilet, especially in a developed nation like the UK, is one of the most basic rights.” Strike described her journey as a “nightmare” and said that upon returning to her home, “I scrubbed myself clean in the shower then flung myself on my bed and sobbed for hours. After thinking about it for a while I decided to go public despite the personal humiliation of doing so in the hope that it will bring about change for other people with disabilities who want to contribute to society but are prevented from doing so. Too many people with disabilities suffer in silence when this kind of thing happens because they feel too embarrassed to talk about it.”

  • 2017: Over 20% of employers have said that they would be less inclined to hire someone who declared a disability. Such a statement probably means that said employer is unlikely to hire a disabled person at all. This statistic comes from a ComRes poll for Leonard Cheshire Disability. It specifically states that many employers simply don’t hire disabled people.


  • Current: Disabled people are sometimes placed in jobs where they receive less than minimum wage and perform repetitive tasks. They are also often sent to special education classes where they have limited chances to make friends and work.

  • Current: In the US, if you are disabled you are twice as likely to be poor. This gap has widened since the 1990 ADA Act.

  • Current: The employment rate for those with disabilities is 14.4% compared to the general population of 71.2%

  • Current: as of 2019 only 2 full-time wheelchair users are serving in state legislation, for the entire USA.

  • Current: The Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell that sterilized disabled individuals to eliminate a gene pool that was considered unappealing has never been overturned. States continue to accept requests from family members to have disabled members forcibly sterilized.

  • Current: Disabled individuals are forced to choose between getting married and receiving lifesaving medical supplies such as medication, catheters, dialysis, chemotherapy, and equipment through Medicaid. Once married, a disabled individual most likely loses this vital health coverage

  • Current: Disabled individuals are still asked to live thousands of dollars below the poverty line in order to receive vital healthcare benefits. The poverty line is a cap of $12,490 but to receive Medicaid disabled individuals cap is $9,000 a year



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