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The Disability Rights Movement

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The Disability Rights Movement originated in the 1970’s and remnants of it have continued into the 1990’s.  The movement was significant in the United States because it was the first time the disabled people were acknowledged as people who deserved to be treated equally as the rest of society.  Before the Disability Rights Movement the disabled had minimal to rights.  The movement changed society’s way of treating the disabled in all aspects of their life from school, work to everyday life.

            The Disability Rights Movement started in the late 1960’s shortly after the Civil Rights movement.  The movement itself was a broad movement that contributed to smaller acts.  The public was receptive to the movement at first but eventually accepted it over time.  The first major successes of the Disability Rights Movement started with a man named Ed Roberts.  Another important success came from an incident at Gallaudet University.  The National Disability Rights Network was an important part of the political influences for the future.  The Disability Rights Movement was an important social movement that has brought disabled rights to the caliber they are today. 

            People with disabilities have been discriminated against for hundreds of years.  Back in the 1800’s people with disabilities were often institutionalized (vsarts.org).  Before the Disability Rights Movement came about, the disabled were viewed as nonhuman.   They were often labeled as beggars or indigents (vsarts.org).  They were considered sickly and people who needed to be cured (vsarts.org).  As a result the disabled people were secluded from society.  The disabilities the disabled people possessed were seen as tragic and overall dreadful.  The disabled people were labeled this way because of the ignorance and fear of society (vsarts.org).  The disabled people were in need of a way to voice who they were to society, teach society they were real people, and stand up for their rights.

            The first acknowledgment of the disabled rights came after WWI (vsarts.org).  A lot of WWI soldiers returned home from war injured.  Rehabilitation acts were passed in the 1920’s for the injured soldiers (vsarts.org).  The next public acknowledgement of disability rights was the Disability Rights Movement. 

The Disability Rights Movement came about at a time when many other movements of minority groups were formulating and voicing who they were.  The Disability Rights Movement originated in the 1970’s shortly after other rights movements that happened in the 1960’s like the African American civil rights movement and the Women’s rights movement (http://en.wikipedia.org).  The civil rights granted to the disabled did not come easy.  They tried to pass a Rehabilitation Act in 1972 that was vetoed by President Nixon (vsarts.org).  Finally after the march at Washington a Rehabilitation Act to protect the civil rights of the disabled was passed in 1973 (vsarts.org).  This was a stepping stone for the people with disabilities to gain rights but they still did not gain broad civil rights.  It was not until the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) that they finally gained, “federal anti-discrimination law ensures equal access to employment opportunities and public accommodations for people with disabilities” (vsarts.org).  The Disability Rights Movement was the first step in the long process to gain disabled civil rights.

The Disability Rights Movement was composed of many groups and organizations.  Groups were made up of people whom have disabilities and people who support the disabled.  These people came together to form groups with the purpose to support and act on “behalf of people with diverse physical and metal impairments” (Scotch, 1989, p. 382).  Surprisingly an estimate of only 100,000 people with disabilities belonged to the groups and organizations that made up the Disability Rights Movement (Scotch, 1989, p. 382).  The majority of people supporting the Disability Rights Movement were parents and family members of the disabled.  Very few disabled people actively participated in the movement itself. 

            The Disability Rights Movement was a broad social movement that brought about different acts that contributed to the movement.  The Disability Rights Movement brought about many acts including: The Independent Living Act, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, and finally The Americans with Disabilities Act.  Each one of these acts contributed in an important way to the entire Disability Rights Movement.

The Independent Living Act or The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is one act that was especially important.  The Independent Living Act is a philosophy, a way of looking at disabled people and an overall movement of disabled people “who proclaim to work for self-determination, self-respect and equal opportunities” (http://en.wikipedia.org).    This act stated that all qualified handicapped people would never be excluded in any shape or form in programs that are federally funded (acils.com).  This was the first act to give the disabled civil rights.

Another disability rights act for education was passed in the 1970’s during the Disability Rights Movement.  An act guaranteeing the rights for students with disabilities called The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975 (vsarts.org).  This act was eventually modified into what we call today I.D.E.A. or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act back in 1990.  This act gave individuals with disabilities the right to an inclusive education in a least restricting environment.

The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act or the CLASS Act provided an insurance program for long-term care (vor.net).  This helped people with disabilities because it was specifically designed for people significant limitations.  It is meant to help people with ongoing needs and it changes as their needs change (tilrc.org). This gave people with disabilities health security.    

The Americans with Disabilities Act was not passed until 1990.  The intention of this act was to make America accessible to all people.  This act gave the disabled broad civil rights for the first time (vsar.org).  The act also protected the parents and people who work with disabled people (jan.wvu.edu).  This act gave people with disabilities and people associated with the disabled the freedom to live their life freely without discrimination. 

            The public had an initial negative reaction to the Disability Rights Movement.  It was initially very difficult for the disabled to get laws passed to protect their rights.  President Nixon vetoed the Rehabilitation Act a few times before approving it in 1973.  Nixon claimed it was too expensive to approve (Fleischer & Zames, 2001, p. 49).  It took  rallies and sit-ins to convince Nixon to approve a watered down version of the original Rehabilitation act (Fleischer & Zames, 2001, p. 49). 

            The fight for disability rights was not easy.  Many people refused to follow the acts that were passed to protect disabled rights.  After the Disability Movement, lawsuits, the formation of new organizations and demonstrations all happened to fight for disability rights (Fleischer & Zames, 2001, p. 71).  People were tending to not follow the laws and treat people with disabilities in the way they felt was necessary.

            Eventually with time disability rights have become more accepted.  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 marked a turning a point in the attitudes of the public.  This new act protected the rights of disabled people in all areas of life.  Today most schools and companies have policies that forbid disabled discrimination that are typically followed. 

            The disabilities rights movement didn’t get off to a good start until the civil rights movement came along. That is because it wasn’t until people started becoming more aware to the injustices that were being done against minorities and finding legitimacy in their fight for equal rights that the same kind of awareness and support came for people with disabilities. So the disabilities rights movement came about and gained momentum almost right along with the civil rights act.

            The first major success of the disability rights movement and what really started the movement was a man named Ed Roberts. He was a post polio quadriplegic (his paralysis was a result of the polio), who in 1962 sued UC Berkeley to be able to go to school there. He won and was able to attend classes if he made his own arrangements. Classes weren't wheelchair accessible and so as a result he had to be carried around. Most of the time his brother, who also attended classes there, was the one who was responsible for carrying up and down stairs and to and from classes. He couldn't live in the dorm rooms because he was attached to an iron lung and so was forced to live in the university's hospital. Once others found out about his strength and that he was attending classes several more people with severe disabilities joined him. Because of the civil rights protests and other protests going on at the time Roberts and the other students who had disabilities felt encouraged to form a political group called the Rolling Quads.

            Roberts wasn’t happy just attending classes though at Berkeley. He didn’t like living in the university hospital and didn’t feel this was fair treatment. So he flew to Washington DC to protest and to try to raise awareness to the situation and to bring about change. As a result of this, he was able to get the funds and in 1970 the physically disabled students program began and changed the way students with disabilities were treated at Berkeley. The students were now able to get accessible housing, a wheelchair workshop, and were able to freely participate in advocacy for treatment and funding towards people with disabilities.

            The physically disabled students program did so well that in 1972 Roberts formed the Berkeley center for independent living. The main goal of this center was to help all people with disabilities, which were capable, to learn how to live on their own successfully and how to integrate with society. Then in 1975 Roberts was appointed director of the state of California’s Department of Rehabilitation which gave him the perfect opportunity to work on expanding this idea of independent living for the disabled. It became widely popular and other programs with the same ideas and motives were founded across the country.

            As these programs were thriving across the country other things being done by people with disabilities were becoming more and more popular. In 1973 Roberts had had a woman, Judith E. Heumann, come to help with his Centers for Independent Living from New York. In 1970 she founded the Disabled in Action in New York. She too was a post polio quadriplegic. She went to school to study speech therapy but when she went to apply to get her certificate they wouldn’t allow her to because of her disability. She became furious and went to the media and sued the Board of Education in the state of New York. She won and got her certificate. She then traveled to California to work with Roberts.

            In 1973 the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law. This act can be seen as both a success of the movement as well as a setback. This act held the first United Sates federal civil rights laws that were applicable to those citizens with disabilities. However this act didn’t come as a result from people protesting or fighting for their rights. The main purpose for the government creating this act was to be able to give federal funds to people with disabilities. According to the article they were “inserted seemingly as a random afterthought. Some members of congress may not even have been aware of threes portions of the act, or may have considered them a sympathetic but meaningless gesture (www.jhu.edu/HURJ/issue7/focus-weinstein.html).” Section 504 made it illegal for any institution that was getting funding from the federal government to discriminate against a person with disabilities. However because they new it would cost so much to enforce these regulations nothing was done to institutions who didn’t follow the act. In 1977 activist for disabilities rights formed the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. As this group they held protest in Washington DC and 300 of these demonstrators took over the office of the secretary to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).  The secretary’s name was Joseph Califano. In New York City more protestors went to the HEW offices there. And in San Francisco protestors, led by Roberts and Heumann, occupied the HEW office there for 25 days. This was a major accomplishment for the movement because it was the first time protestors were protesting across the country as a unified group. Then on April 28, 1977 Califano agreed to sign. Section 504 was now signed and regulated that institutions receiving public funding make themselves handicap accessible. Section 504 met a lot of resistance because complying to the regulations would be very expensive and take a lot of time. Few institutions were willing to comply. Also several Supreme Court decisions in the 1980's limited the power of these new regulations.  Disabilities Rights activists had to constantly fight and were constantly protesting to try to get institutions to comply with Section 504 regulations.

            Another success for the disabilities rights movement came in 1988.  The Board of Trustees at Gallaudet University, which at the time was the most famous university for deaf students in the United Sates, went against students, faculty, and alumni and tried to name a non-deaf man president. There were huge protests and many of those angered took political action.  A week after the protests had started the Board of trustees agreed to name the deaf man president. This man became the schools first deaf president.

            Two months after this incident at Gallaudet University lawmakers of the one hundredth Congress started working on the first version of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although protest earlier had made some progress in congress this act went way beyond anything that had been done in the past. The original draft of this act regulated that all business, regardless of whether or not they were receiving federal funding, to make themselves accessible to people with disabilities. The only time a business was allowed to not comply with the regulations was if they could prove that it would cause them to become bankrupt. It also included in the wording a clause that would allow a person with disabilities to seek punitive damages in discrimination lawsuits. This was the biggest victory of all for the Disability Rights movement.

For the political impact of the Disability Rights Movement it is important to focus on the National Disability Rights Network.  It is an organization that is using political avenues to serve the disabled individuals in the United States.  The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is the non-profit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP).  NDRN members serve individuals with a wide range of disabilities – including, but not limited to, those with cognitive, mental, sensory, and physical disabilities – by guarding against abuse; advocating for basic rights; and ensuring accountability in health care, education, employment, housing, transportation, and within the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  The National Disability Rights Network is a great example of an organization that is fighting for change through political means.

            The National Disability Rights Network bases its public policy views on the belief that people with disabilities have the constitutional right to fully participate in our democratic society.  The foundation of the 2007 legislative agenda – the first session of the new 110th Congress -- is built on the NDRN mission statement, principles, strategic plan, and current policies; guidance from the NDRN Legislative Committee; and input from P&A/CAP leaders across the country. These goals take into consideration potential new initiatives, expected proposals from the White House and Congress, as well as appropriation and authorizing legislation that must be addressed in the coming year. NDRN also monitors and reacts to the implementation and enforcement of existing or new legislation that has an impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities. NDRN efforts include interacting with a variety of federal agencies and entities either in person or through the regulatory process.

The National Disability Rights Network has facilitated in the formation of many programs.  The first is the Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PADD).  The PADD was the first P&A program.  It was established in 1975, and its goal is to ensure the rights of children and adults with developmental disabilities in a wide range of settings.  The Client Assistance Program (CAP) was established in 1984 to protect the rights of people with disabilities who are clients /applicants of projects funded under the Rehabilitation Act.  The third program was established in 1986, and is call Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI).  This program is designed to protect the rights of individuals with mental illness in all settings.  Another program is Protection and Advocacy for Individual Rights (PAIR).  It was established to protect the rights of those individuals with disabilities who are ineligible for PADD or PAIMI.  This is the program with the largest customer base.  Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology (PAAT) was established in 1993 to help ensure that children and adults with disabilities can get access to critically needed assistive technology in a variety of settings.  Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS) was established in 1999 to help Social Security beneficiaries with disabilities overcome the obstacles to finding and keeping a good job. Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (PATBI) was established in 2000 to address the advocacy needs of the ever-increasing population of individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI). Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access (PAVA) was established as part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 to address the specific and unique obstacles that individuals with disabilities face when they want to vote.  All of these programs were put in place to help the disabled children and adults in the United States.  They exist because of the Disability Rights Movement, in some way or anther.

There have been many presidential policy goals that have had a direct impact on the lives of children and adults with disabilities and their families.  The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has directly affected the nations ability to address the unmet needs of children and adults with disabilities. There are a large number of returning soldiers with disabilities that didn’t exist before the war.  With more and more disabled people in the United States, the nation needs to find a better way to take care of them all.  Also, ongoing Administration efforts to cut taxes, as well as to make permanent certain already-enacted tax cuts, are among the fiscal and policy decisions harming people with disabilities, deeming it “politically acceptable” to offset the growing federal deficit with cuts in programs for those with the greatest needs.

            The makeup of the U.S. Congress changed drastically with the November 2006 elections.  Instead of one party controlling both the Executive and Legislative branches, there is once again a balance of power.  With this change has come strong hope that this will put a stop to policies that have endangered services and supports that are critical to people with disabilities and their families.  The National Disability Rights Network and many other concerned with human needs strongly hope that the new leadership in Congress will stop the unraveling of the nation’s services and return equity to society.

The National Disability Rights Network believes that the First Session of the 110th Congress must make many changes regarding the disabled population of the United States.  They must address the unmet needs of children and adults with disabilities and their families before making further tax cuts or revising tax code.  They must roll back certain recent tax cuts that have added to the deficit and placed existing disability and low-income assistance programs at risk.  Congress must also assure that tax and other policies, such as Social Security reforms, represent a sound investment for all in the nation and do not have a negative impact on people with disabilities and their families by shifting long-term costs to the future.  They must ensure that critical disability programs are not the target of deficit-reduction measures.

The government plays a vital role in providing services, supports, and benefits, and protecting the rights of children and adults with disabilities and their families.  Federal spending for individuals with disabilities in their communities is an important investment that will save money by lessening the need for inappropriate and costly long-term institutional care.  With the appropriate support, individuals with disabilities can have access to a challenging and appropriate education, get a job, have a home, and make friends in their communities.

            There are many soldiers returning from combat that have sustained permanent disabilities including mobility impairments, traumatic brain injury, and mental heath disabilities.  Many of these individuals will require the assistance of the P&A and CAP network to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into family life and society. In addition, military families with a child with a disability face the same challenges as non-military families with children with disabilities. However, the military education, health, and legal advocacy systems often do not meet their needs. Families with a caregiver currently deployed to a war zone face particular difficulties. 

            Medicaid is the largest funding source for health and long-term supports in the federal system and continues to be a lifeline for millions for children and adults with disabilities and their families.  The Medicaid program is a partnership between the federal and state governments.  Medicaid pays for some services, such as inpatient and outpatient hospital services, physician and certified nurse practitioner visits, laboratory tests and x-rays, nursing home and home health care, and certain screenings. It may also pay for services, such as prescription drugs, clinic visits, prosthetic devices, hearing aids, dental care, eye exams, glasses, transportation for medical care, and medical services not covered by Medicare. It can also help pay Medicare costs.

            Most people with disabilities of working age remain unemployed or under-employed.  The NDRN would like to see the Rehabilitation Act reauthorized, while strengthening the collaboration of state and federal programs involving the employment of individuals with disabilities.  The Rehabilitation Act is American legislation that guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities. 

               The National Disability Rights Network believes that the First Session of the 110th Congress should enact changes to copyright laws to ensure printed and other materials are accessible to individuals with disabilities.  They should also ensure equal access to all emerging technologies for individuals with disabilities.  Regarding criminal justice and juvenile justice, the NDRN says that Congress should enact legislation designed to help adult and juvenile offenders re-enter the community.  They should also enact legislation that addresses the inadequacy of mental-health services in prisons that result in prisoners with mental illness being inappropriately placed in segregation units for extended periods of time where they decompensate, are prone to commit suicide and lose parole eligibility.  They should improve protections for juvenile offenders by increasing funding for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention legislation to address the inappropriate warehousing of children in detention center because of the unavailability of community mental-health services.

             The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a United States federal law that governs how states and public agences provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities. It addresses the educational needs of children with disabilities from birth to the age of 21.  IDEA guarantees eligible children with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education in the least restricitve environment.  Investing in a successful educational experience is the major route for individuals with disabilities to become independent, productive, and contributing members of their communities.  The No Child Left Behind Act promises to improve education for all students – including students with disabilities – by increasing accountability of teachers and schools.

            Regarding health and mental health, the NDRN would like Congress to enact the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, which would establish a new nationwide, long-term care insurance program financed through voluntary payroll deductions.  This bill would assist people with disabilities who need long-term assistance or supports by providing a flexible cash insurance benefit that could be used creatively to purchase services, supports and technology. Beneficiaries would choose how to best meet their own needs. The bill would benefit the aging community and the disability community members that are employed and making decent incomes. The bill would also help create incentives for becoming employed and create disincentives for quitting work and entering the roles of Medicaid and other public, poverty health and social service programs. 

            “The National Disability Rights Network has a vision of a society where people with disabilities have equality of opportunity and are able to participate fully in community life by exercising choice and self-determination.” This is the mission statement of the NDRN.  They are intent on making sure that disabled people are treated equal in every aspect of their lives.

            In conclusion, there are many things that brought about and have resulted because of the Disability Rights Movement. We went from a country that institutionalized those who were handicapped to a country that, hopefully adapts to there needs and provides equal opportunities to those who are either physically or mentally handicapped. In the 1800’s those who had disabilities were looked down upon and thought of as unworthy and not on the same level as “normal” humans. Because of this view that people held they were often sent away and shut off from society. However as times changed so did the feelings of those who were disabled. No longer did they just sit back in silence or not fight back when they were looked down upon or treated differently than everyone else. And once people with disabilities started fighting back, this sparked the start of the Disability Rights Movement.

            People started fighting back earlier and once the World Wars began there was more awareness being brought to those who were physically or mentally handicapped. This is because war veterans were coming home as amputees or suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Once the civil rights movement began, this provided the perfect opportunity for more awareness to be brought to the rights of the disabled. Disabled people were seeing women and minorities stick up for their rights and it inspired them to do the same. One man who helped start the whole movement was Ed Roberts. He was a quadriplegic who wanted to go to UC Berkeley and sued for his right to go there. He became a role model for others and helped form many organizations to help people with disabilities. After many years and several protests the Congress finally passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. All businesses had to become accessible for the disabled and there was to be no discrimination against those who are disabled in the workplace. This shows that although you may think you are just one person and can’t make a difference you in fact can. Had Roberts thought this who knows where we would be today? But, if you act and inspire others to do the same you can change a lot of things and make a huge difference in the lives of others living and for those who are yet to come!









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