May is recognized as National Mobility Awareness Month, and National Ramp wishes to recognize the disability activists who have influenced public policy, working for the inclusion of disabled persons in all aspects of society, including education, housing, and employment. While there are many activists who have and continue to work for the rights of physically and mentally handicapped people, here are a few worth mentioning:
An early victory in disability rights is the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to World War I, many disabled people were sent to live in institutions and asylums, shuttered from society, or left in poverty. After World War I, injured veterans fought for health care and assistance in vocational training in exchange for their service to the nation. Notable among these veterans is Robert Marx. While spending six months in hospitals recovering from injuries sustained at the very end of World War I, Marx met other veterans who would be dealing with the result of their injuries for the rest of their lives. He became a lawyer and judge, and other veterans in his community selected him to lead a new organization called the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). With leaders of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, these advocates testified in Congress to argue for the creation of the Veterans’ Bureau (which later became the Veterans Administration) as well as the expansion of benefits to all veterans, not just those who had service-connected disabilities.
The Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s had a profound impact on disability rights as well. Disability advocates partnered with other minority groups in demanding equal rights and opportunities, and also used the same techniques to organize, advocate and challenge perceptions.
One of the most notable advocates of this time was Ed Roberts, considered the founder of the independent living movement. After contracting polio and becoming paralyzed, Ed challenged the idea that he would not be able to pursue an education or live a productive life. After community college, he began studies at UC Berkeley, where his activism took off.
As Berkeley’s campus was inaccessible, Roberts and other disabled students created a group they called the “Rolling Quads.” They advocated for more independence, creating Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program and then the Center for Independent Living, to address the academic and self-advocacy needs of disabled students at Berkeley. He later co-founded the World Institute on Disability, a nonprofit that works to integrate people with disabilities into the communities around them.
The 1970s saw civil rights and education rights put into law, with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act. In the 1980s, activists pushed for consolidation of various laws under one piece of civil rights legislation. One notable activist of this is Patrisha Wright, widely considered the main lobbying force behind the campaign for the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Patrisha also co-founded the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), a national civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities.
Signed into law in 1990, the ADA is landmark civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on disability. In addition to protecting the civil rights of disabled people, the ADA also ensured protections for employees with disabilities, prevented discrimination from public services and required telecommunications services to offer adaptive services. This legislation has led to many of the provisions we know today, such as wheelchair ramps in public spaces, accessible parking spaces, priority seating sections on public transportation, and many others.
The work done by disability advocates did not end with the passage of the ADA, as many activists continue to fight perceptions and biases. Carrie Ann Lucas was a lawyer and activist who championed the rights of disabled parents. Due to her activism, Colorado law was changed to ensure that “the disability of a parent or potential guardian could not be the sole basis for denying custody, adoption, foster care or guardianship of a child.”>
Today’s activists are using the resources that past generations had, such as lobbying Congress or filing lawsuits, while also being able to use social media for organizing and awareness. So much has already been accomplished in providing equality to disabled Americans, and National Ramp celebrates the activists who continue this work.