Brief History of Rights for Disabled Citizens in the U.S.

Disabled Rights

December 3 is National Day of Persons with Disabilities. There are approximately 50 million Americans with disabilities. Disabilities are defined as physical or mental conditions that limit a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Several types of disabilities are recognized below:

  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders
  • Blindness or Low Vision
  • Brain Injuries
  • Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Medical Disabilities
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Psychiatric Disabilities
  • Speech and Language Disabilities

Individuals with disabilities have fought against fear, stereotypes, and stigmatization for centuries, many living marginalized and impoverished lives. In the 1800s, those with disabilities were considered by society to be abnormal and even feeble-minded. This thinking continued to prevail into the 1900s. In1907, Indiana enacted a eugenic sterilization law for “confirmed idiots, imbeciles, and rapists”—in state institutions. 20 years, later compulsory sterilization was ruled constitutional for “mental defectives.”

In spite of the enormous contributions made to society by individuals with disabilities, it was not until 1918 that the U.S. Congress passed the first major rehabilitation program for disabled soldiers. Real and lasting changes in U.S. policies toward individuals with disabilities only came about with the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was the first president with a disability and a powerful advocate for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. In 1935 Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, establishing a program of permanent assistance to adults with disabilities.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.  The following timeline looks at some of the events that paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).


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