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Disability History

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Disability History - Moments in Time

Disability history is part of the fabric of the history of the United States, tracing back to colonial times. There are as many stories as there are people with disabilities.

Some of the stories are inspiring, some are horrifying and they all help us realize how far we have come with the help of advocates for people with disabilities, and people with disabilities who have stood up and made change. We thank them all.

The following is a timeline of events that lead to this moment in time and Disability History Week becoming law in West Virginia.

We hope you are inspired by these stories and take action.

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Disability History Timeline


Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, the first hospital built in the United States included a section for people who were mentally ill in the basement. These people were often referred to as "lunatics". When the hospital opened in 1756, these patients were chained to the walls of the basement and put on display for a fee.


The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the first permanent school for the deaf in America, opened in Hartford on April 15. This marks the beginning of efforts to educate people with disabilities in America.


Louis Braille invents the raised point alphabet that has come to be known as Braille.


The American Civil War results in 30,000 amputations in the Union Army alone. This brings disability issues to the American consciousness.


The Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell rules that forced sterilization of people with disabilities is not a violation of their constitutional rights. Oliver Wendell Holmes states in the court opinion he 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."


Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first physically disabled person ever to be elected as a head of government, is sworn into office as president of the United States. Roosevelt had contracted polio earlier in his life and wore a brace and was unable to walk with the aid of a cane. He never allowed himself to be photographed or filmed while using his cane. All images of him during his presidency show him in a seated position.


A group in New York City called the League for the Physically Handicapped formed to protest discrimination by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This was the first known direct action conducted by disabled people in America.


Amid the outbreak of World War II and a societal acceptance of eugenics, Hitler orders widespread "mercy killing" of the sick and disabled. The Nazi euthanasia program was code-named Aktion T4 and was instituted to eliminate "life unworthy of life."


Edward V. Roberts becomes the first severely disabled student at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1970, he formed a group on campus called the Rolling Quads and one year after that, Ed and his associates established the nation's first Center for Independent Living (CIL). Fifteen years after being told he was "too disabled to work", Ed was appointed as the head of Vocational Rehabilitation for California, and established nine Centers for Independent Living in the state in 1975. Today there are over 300 Centers for Independent Living nationwide. Ed is known as the father of the independent living movement.


The Civil Rights Act is passed prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin. The Civil Rights Act and civil rights movement lay a foundation for the disability rights movement and later the ADA.


The first convention of People First was held in Salem, Oregon. People First becomes the largest U.S. organization composed of and led by people with cognitive disabilities.


Public Law 94-142, Education of All Handicapped Children Act, is passed granting every disabled student in America the right to a "free appropriate public education." The law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990.


Sit-ins held in Denver over the inaccessibility of the public transit system.


American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) is organized at the Atlantis Community headquarters in Denver, Colorado. For the next seven years ADAPT conducts a civil disobedience campaign against the American Public Transit Association and various local public transit authorities to protest the lack of accessible public transportation. ADAPT is renamed American Disabled for Attendant Programs today in 1990, changing its focus with the passage of the ADA.


The Mental Illness Bill of Rights Act is passed establishing protection and advocacy services for people with mental illness. The National Association of Psychiatric Survivors is founded.


Students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., organize a week-long shut-down and occupation of their campus to demand selection of a deaf president after the Gallaudet board of trustees appoints a non-deaf person as president of the university. On March 13, the Gallaudet administration announces that I. King Jordan will be the University's first deaf president.


ADAPT, a national advocacy organization for people with disabilities started in 1978, organizes a demonstration for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in Washington D.C. They occupy the rotunda in our nation's capital and many are arrested.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is signed by President George Bush on July 26 in a ceremony on the White House lawn witnessed by thousands of disability rights activists. The law is the most sweeping disability rights legislation in history, for the first time bringing full legal citizenship to Americans with disabilities.


On June 22, the Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead vs. L.C. and F.W. that a state may not discriminate against people with disabilities by keeping them in hospitals and institutions instead of community homes.


In May a Florida judge orders a developmentally disabled woman to be sterilized following the abortion of her pregnancy which was the result of a rape that occurred in her group home.


In September, over 200 disabled activists march 144 miles from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to demand passage of the Medicaid Community-based Attendants Services and Supports Act (MICASSA) and "no more stolen lives."


Two thousand people participate in the nation's first annual Disability Pride Parade in Chicago, IL.


The first West Virginia Youth Disability Caucus, a leadership forum for youth with disabilities, is held in Charleston, WV.


Governor Manchin signed into law a bill establishing the third week of October as Disability History Week in West Virginia and requiring instruction in public schools - the first such law in the United States.

Other resources

Visit the Disability History Week timelines section of their Web site for more moments in time.

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