Disability Rights History Monday
The fight for disability rights is nothing new. Individuals and groups have been fighting for equal rights for the disabled throughout history. Each Monday, we will be highlighting one event or person in disability history that you may not have heard of and probably didn’t learn about in school.
July 8th: Louis Braille
Have you ever wondered how Braille, the form of written language for those who are blind, came to be?
Born in 1809, Louis became blind at the age of 4 due to an accident with an awl, a tool he was playing with in his father’s shop. Later, at age 15, he would create a system of reading and writing we know today as Braille.
Louis was fortunate, after going blind, his parents made efforts to raise him as normally as possible, which was uncommon given the time. He learned to navigate the world using canes that his father made for him. He was incredibly smart and as a result was accommodated with higher education.
He attended one of the first schools for blind youth in the world, while there, he learned the Haüy system of reading. This involved books of heavy paper with raised imprints of Latin letters. The Haüy system was slow and the availability of books was limited, and there was no way to write, preventing students from sending letters home. Despite the challenges, Braille read the Haüy books and excelled in school. Upon completing school, he was asked to remain as a teacher’s aid, later he became a professor, he remained at the Institute for most of his life.
Braille was motivated to create a new method of reading and writing to allow communication access to the blind. He saw it as an access to knowledge and a way to alleviate some of the stigma surrounding blindness.
"Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about." -Louis Braille
Braille learned about “night writing,” a communication system used by the French Army, it was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper. Based on this, Braille designed a system of writing using raised dots and dashes that were much more simple than the night writings. It was completed in 1824, Braille was only 15 years old. The tool he used to create the raised dot system was the tool that had caused him to go blind as a child, the awl.
Braille has largely remained unaltered from its original form, but it was adapted into musical notes. Though was not used at the Institute during Louis’s lifetime, Braille has become the most widely used method of reading and writing among the blind population.
Louis Braille wrote several books about Braille and education for the blind, he remained at the school until the age of 40 when he was forced to leave due to illness. He lived for 3 more years until he passed away in 1852.
“Louis Braille.” NBP Learn About Braille: Who Is Louis Braille, www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/braille/whoislouis.html.
“Louis Braille.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 July 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Braille#cite_ref-Olmstrom_16-0.
Seah, Jean Elizabeth. “Louis Braille: The Blind Catholic Musician Who Invented Touch-Reading.” Aleteia, Aleteia, 18 Nov. 2017, aleteia.org/2017/11/18/louis-braille-the-blind-catholic-musician-who-invented-touch-reading/.
July 1st: The Capitol Crawl
“I want my civil rights. I want to be treated like a human being.” -Paulette Patterson
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed nearly 29 years ago by President George H.W. Bush on July 26th, 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life (2019). Sounds like common sense, right? Disabled individuals shouldn’t face discrimination, there’s no justification for it. However, getting the bill passed turned out to be an uphill battle, or should I say, upstairs.
The ADA was originally introduced in Congress in 1988, the following year, a revised version was brought forward, passing through the Senate that same year. After its sojourn in the senate, the bill went to the House of Representatives where it went unpassed for an entire year, some taking Gandalf’s desperate cry against the balrog a little too seriously. The lack of passage justifiably set the alarm bells off among the disabled community (2019). It seemed they needed to gather a fellowship of their own.
On March 12th, 1990 disability rights activists congregated outside the United States Capitol to peacefully demand passage of the ADA. Over 1000 people were in attendance to show their support for the bill..
At the end of the rally, 60 activists abandoned their wheelchairs, crutches, and other mobility devices and crawled up the steps of the capitol building in a demonstration of not only their convictions, but also to highlight the daily struggles disabled people face due to a lack of inclusivity.
While crawling they chanted, “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”
One activist, Paulette Patterson said, while crawling, “I want my civil rights. I want to be treated like a human being.”
This event became known as the Capitol Crawl, and it showed the world just a glimpse of the inaccessibility issues that disabled people face and is accredited with being a reason congress finally passed the ADA. Several senators reportedly felt “inconvenienced” by the Capitol Crawl, or “stunt” as it was referred, which motivated them to approve the act (2018).
“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down” - President George H. W. Bush
Regardless, of how it came to be, the ADA was finally passed, and has since had regulations added. In 2008 the ADA’s younger sibling the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was passed. These changes came as a result of activist and lobbyist efforts to improve the ADA by broadening the definition of disability, filling gaps, improving regulations of various settings including the workplace, educational edifices, and in civil society (2019).
When the ADA finally passed, President Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down” (Eaton, 1990). The passage signified a huge step forward for inclusivity and disability rights, and it is largely thanks to disabled activists who took their case to the Capitol and showed the country what being disabled in America was like, that it was passed at all. However, the “shameful wall of exclusion” still stands. Every day it is being taken down brick by brick by disabled activists across the country and world who have a vision and dream of complete inclusivity. It is these people, both past and present, that we must thank for the steady improvements in disability rights and inclusivity.
“‘Capitol Crawl’ – Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.” History By Zim, 6 Mar. 2018, www.historybyzim.com/2013/09/capitol-crawl-americans-with-disabilities-act-of-1990/.
Eaton, William J. “Disabled Persons Rally, Crawl Up Capitol Steps : Congress: Scores Protest Delays in Passage of Rights Legislation. The Logjam in the House Is Expected to Break Soon.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 Mar. 1990, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-03-13-mn-211-story.html.
The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities. “Capitol Crawl.” The ADA Legacy Project: Moments in Disability History 27: A Magna Carta and the Ides of March to the ADA, mn.gov/mnddc/ada-legacy/ada-legacy-moment27.html.
“What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?” ADA National Network, 11 July 2019, adata.org/learn-about-ada. Accessed 1 July 2019.