Skip to main content

History of Disability in America

By October 12, 20213 min read

Over 40 million Americans live with disabilities. Thanks to advancements in science and technology and the passage of necessary legislation, these Americans are able to lead independent lives and contribute vitally to society. But the way individuals with disabilities have been treated throughout the United States’ history has not always been conducive to their flourishing.

During the 1800s, disabled individuals were marginalized and their conditions stigmatized out of fear, abuse, and a lack of compassion and understanding. The result of such treatment was that disabled Americans were discriminated against and often removed from their families and institutionalized or exploited for entertainment, which led to entire generations of people suffering in poverty. Many were sterilized to ensure that they did not reproduce additional disabled individuals.

Beginning in the 1900s, however, those living with disabilities started to demand better treatment and rights equal to able Americans. Advocacy organizations for the disabled increased in number and prominence. The League of the Physically Handicapped started in the 1930s and fought for employment opportunities during the Great Depression. Psychiatric patients in the 1940s united to start We Are Not Alone, and they assisted individuals transitioning from hospitals to life in the community. President Truman formed the National Institute of Mental Health, and President Kennedy organized numerous planning committees to research disabilities and their treatments.

In 1961, the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) developed architectural codes that would allow buildings to be handicap-accessible, and the Architectural Barriers Act was passed in 1968, which required all federally-owned or leased buildings to be accessible to disabled individuals. In 1970, Congress passed the Urban Mass Transit Act, which forced all new mass-transit vehicles to be fitted with a wheelchair lift, and WGBH, a Boston public television station, started providing “Closed Captioned” programming for deaf viewers in 1971.

Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, which stated: “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later the Individuals with Disabilities Act), which allowed disabled children to be integrated into public school classrooms.

Passage of the Fair Housing Amendments Act in 1988 mandated minimum standards of accessibility for new construction in multi-family housing. And in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to prohibit discrimination against disabled individuals in all areas of American life.