For centuries, individuals with disabilities were marginalized and hidden away. In more recent times, they were routinely institutionalized, denied education and subject to discrimination in employment, housing, transportation and many other aspects of daily life. But self-advocates and supportive family members have been tenacious in their efforts to bring about change, and much progress has resulted.

Following World War I, injured veterans began lobbying for services to prepare them to reenter the workforce. The Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of 1918, which provided training and financial assistance to veterans with disabilities, laid a foundation for later legislation addressing broader needs of the disability community. In 1943, the act was amended to extend services to individuals with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.

Throughout the Fifties, Congress established a framework for financial assistance to persons unable to continue working due to disabilities. By 1958, SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) extended benefits to the dependents of such individuals.

Disability Rights Movement

During the Sixties, inspired by the civil rights and women’s movements, a disability rights movement emerged. Originating at the University of California, Berkeley, the independent living movement, which promoted self-determination and de-institutionalization, swept the nation. Frequently cited as the first disability rights law, the Architectural Barriers Act, passed in 1968, required that all federal buildings be accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

The Seventies saw increasing attention to disability issues. In 1972, federal legislation established a national network of Independent Living Centers to provide information, training and peer support to enable people with disabilities to live as autonomously as possible within the mainstream community. The same year, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was established to provide financial assistance to adults with disabilities who had no work history. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 then prohibited discrimination against individuals with disability by any federal program. And by the middle of the decade, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act provided funding for all states for “free and appropriate” education to children with special needs. The new law emphasized the inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms by stipulating that they be taught in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

Watershed Legislation

Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 marked a watershed for the disabilities movement. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act, it prohibited discrimination based on disability by any local, state or federal program. It required that businesses with more than 15 employees make “reasonable accommodations” in order to include individuals with disabilities in their workforce. It guaranteed access to public transportation and telecommunications, and required that restaurants, stores and other public facilities make “reasonable modifications” in order to be accessible to people with special needs.

Congress passed IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) the same year, building upon the Education of the Handicapped Act. The new law required that students with special needs have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that parents must approve. Schools were also now required to pay for additional services and specialists needed by students to achieve their potential.

With the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992, funding focused on developing skills that would lead to careers for individuals with special needs, not simply entry-level jobs. And at decade’s end, Ticket to Work and the Work Incentives Improvement Act provided training and other supports to assist SSDI and SSI beneficiaries in finding jobs.

Inclusion in the Community

Another major milestone for the disability community was the 1999 Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., which supported the right of people with special needs to live in community settings. The Court found that institutionalization of individuals with disabilities is discriminatory if “treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate.” This ruling has led to major efforts to move individuals with special needs from state-run facilities into supported living situations within the community. It has also begun to motivate movement away from “sheltered workshops” to mainstream jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities.

A self-advocacy movement involving individuals with autism, Down syndrome and others with intellectual disabilities has also begun to gain momentum. The goal of this movement is for individuals with cognitive disabilities to participate in the decision-making that affects their lives, including medical treatments, education, work and residential arrangements. It seeks to empower them and to have their preferences respected.

Since language can embody stereotypes, there has been increased emphasis on using terminology that is not demeaning to individuals with special needs. The term “retardation,” for instance, has largely been replaced by “cognitive” or “intellectual” disability. “Person-centered language” seeks to avoid defining an individual by his or her disability. For example, one would speak of “a boy with autism,” rather than “an autistic boy.”

In 2002, the Help America Vote Act provided federal funding to make voting sites fully accessible to individuals with special needs. Ironically, some states continue to automatically restrict a person’s right to vote if a guardian has been appointed for them, regardless of how limited the guardian’s responsibilities may be.

International Human Rights Treaty

In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, first major human rights treaty of the 21st century. The U.S. Congress has yet to ratify it.

Several years later, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, extending federal law to cover crimes motivated by a person’s disability.

Enormous strides have been made through the commitment of individuals with disabilities and their families. But much remains to be done. Stereotypes continue to permeate our society. Individuals with disabilities suffer a much higher incidence of bullying and other forms of abuse than the general population. Unemployment is high and too many people wishing to live within the community remain institutionalized.

It will require continued advocacy and protection of the hard-won services and supports available through government programs to achieve full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the daily activities of society.