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Success Is a Journey, Not a Destination: A Brief Overview of the Disability Rights Movement

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People with disabilities have fought against physical and attitudinal barriers for centuries. Advocates and organizations have historically banded together for the advancements of marginalized groups, including people with disabilities. With the 31st anniversary of the ADA approaching, let’s take a look at some significant moments that led to one of the most comprehensive pieces of Disability Rights legislation in American history.

  • 1920: The Smith-Fess Act (Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act)– This act established a federal program that granted people with disabilities vocational assistance through guidance, training, occupational services, and job placement.
  • 1935: Social Security Act – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act to provide payment of benefits to people with disabilities who contributed to Social Security through taxes on their earnings.
  • 1965: Voting Rights Act – This law granted people with disabilities the right to have assistance from a person of their choice when voting in elections.
  • 1968: Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) – The ABA focuses on the physical design of buildings and facilities, ensuring that all buildings that are designed, altered, or leased with federal money are accessible to people with disabilities.
  • 1972: Independent Living Movement – Ed Roberts, a pioneer in the disability rights movement, and students from UC Berkeley founded the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. This center focused on advocacy and services for people with disabilities to live independent and productive lives.
  • 1973: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – This law extended vocational training programs and prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Section 504 of the act was the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities.
  • 1977: 504 Sit-In – People with disabilities fought to have regulations in Section 504 defined and enforced from 1973 to 1977. Throughout the United States, people with disabilities led significant demonstrations, including the 504 Sit-In in San Francisco, to apply pressure on legislatures and made their voices heard.  
  • 1990: Capitol Crawl of 1990 – On March 12th, 1990, sixty disability rights activists climbed out of their mobility assistance devices and ascended the 83 steps of the Capitol to protest the barriers people with disabilities faced. This is considered one of the most critical catalysts for the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • 1990: Americans with Disabilities Act – On July 26th, 1990, President George H. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act and Section 504. It is considered the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in United States history. This law protects people with disabilities from discrimination in public life, employment, education, and transportation. 

This brief timeline reminds us that there is inherent value in working within a community of people, fighting for equity and inclusion. Many prominent leaders in the Disability Rights movement persisted for decades to accomplish all that they did. Their tireless pursuit resulted in meaningful advancements in equal rights and opportunities for people with all kinds of disabilities throughout the country. Although there has been tremendous progress for people with disabilities, the fight is far from over.

Watch the video above from NowThis News video see a visual timeline of where this progress has gotten us today. Let it stand as a reminder, for as much has been accomplished, the fight is never over.