Disability Rights History

What are some key moments in the history of the United States disability justice movement?

1954 - Brown v the Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruled that race-based public school segregation was unconstitutional, providing a foundation that would later support the argument for desegregating education for children with disabilities.

Black and white photo from 1954 of a mother and child in front of the capitol building holding a newspaper signaling the end of segregation.

Mid 1950s - An era of deinstitutionalization saw widespread closure of state mental hospitals and a shift towards community-based health services and rehabilitation

1970s - The Independent Living Movement begins with the first Center for Independent Living, a service agency run by and for disabled people, opening in CA in 1972 

Doug Brown and Gene Turitz, founders of Center for Independent Living’s Van Modification Shop, carrying the CIL banner at the Disabled Peoples’ Civil Rights Day March and Rally in San Francisco, Oct. 20, 1979. Credit: Ken Stein

1974 - The last remaining “Ugly Laws”--statutes that prohibited the public appearance of people with visible disabilities—are repealed in Chicago

1977 - The 504 Sit-In sees over 120 disabled demonstrators occupy the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) building in San Francisco for 25 days advocating for enforcement of disability rights legislation. The sit-in draws cross-movement support from the Butterfly Brigade, the Black Panthers, unions, Civil Rights groups, the Chicano group Mission Rebels, religious leaders, and local lawmakers

exterior shot of the 504 sit-in with several people in wheelchairs

1990 - During the “Capitol Crawl”, disabled protestors abandoned their mobility aids and climbed up steps at the National Mall to raise awareness of the struggles that people in the disability communities face, spurring Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

a large group of protesters crawl up the steps to the U.S. Capitol building

1999 - The Olmstead v. L.C. Supreme Court case rules that unjustified segregation of people with intellectual disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the ADA

2005 - The Disability Justice Collective, led by disabled, Queer activists of color, ushers in a “second wave” of the disability rights movement that explicitly examines disability in relation to other forms of systemic oppression and calls for solidarity with other social justice and civil rights movements