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Disability History

Leading up to International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2022, RespectAbility rolled out our Disability History series on social media. We hope the photos used in this series will serve as a reminder of the progress we’ve made, and motivation for the work that remains.

Painting of five ‘beggars’ on the street wearing hats and using crutches. An elderly woman is walking away with an empty bowl. Text: Early Views of Disability. The Beggars, 1568 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Source: WikiArt From the Middle Ages through the 1700s, people believed that disability was caused by a curse or sins. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle believed disabled people with unworthy of life and Plato was the father of the Eugenics movement, believing disabled people were broken.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Ugly Laws throughout the United States made it illegal for anyone with visible disabilities to be in public view, as they were deemed ‘unsightly.’ Forced sterilization laws were also enacted across the United States. Black and white photo of an old blind man in a wheelchair on the sidewalk seeking money. Text: ‘Blind Beggar’ Lawton, Oklahoma by L.W. Hines, 1917. The Ugly Laws (1800s-1970s). Source: Library of Congress.
Black and white photo of Carrie and Emma Buck, daughter and mother, sitting on a bench outside wearing dresses. Text: Carrie and Emma Buck at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, 1924. Buck v. Bell (1927) Source: A.H. Estabrook. Carrie Buck was deemed “feeble minded” and “promiscuous” after being raped and having a child. The institution she was placed in wanted to sterilize her. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled state forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities did not violate due process under the 14th Amendment. Buck v. Bell is looked back on as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions.
Institutions opened in the 1800s and waned in the 1970s. Institutions held people with developmental, physical, psychiatric, and cognitive disabilities. The conditions were terrible and many people suffered abuse. Black and white photo of room filled with beds and a few have people sleeping in them. Text: 1800’s-1970’s Willowbrook state School, NYC, 1971. Source: Public Hostage Public Ransom: Ending Institutional America.
2 black and white photos side by side. One shows a young boy looking out the window of the institution leaning on the radiator. Another shows a young guy sitting on the floor of the institution with his legs up and back to the wall with window above him. Text: Willowbrook State School 1971. Residents go near radiators for warmth. Source: Public Hostage Public Ransom: Ending Institutional America. One of these institutions was Willowbrook in New York. In 1972, Dr. Mike Wilkins and Dr. William Bronston helped expose the conditions at Willowbrook to the media, which led to public outcry and contributed to deinstitutionalization over time. Willowbrook was forced to make drastic changes after being sued by parents in 1972, but did not close until 1987. Learn more about the Willowbrook scandal in The New York Times.
People with disabilities were leaving institutions, but lacked rights and access to the community. The Independent Living Movement started when Ed Roberts, a disabled activist, fought to attend UC Berkeley, using part of the campus hospital as a dorm for students with severe disabilities. In 1972, Ed and the ‘rolling quads’ started the first Independent Living Center in Berkeley, CA to assist people with disabilities like himself to live in the community with needed services instead of hospitals. As a result, Berkeley became one of the centers of the disability rights movement. Black and white photo of Ed Roberts in wheelchair talking to a standing man in a conference room next to the podium and another man. Text: Independent Living Movement 1972 first ILC in Berkeley, CA. Ed Roberts at 1981 Consumer Unity Conference. Source: William Bronston, MD and the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities
Black and white photo of two disabled protesters siting on the ground in front of a building’s doors holding up signs stating, “Free our people,” and, “Hell No. We won’t go to any nursing ‘home.’” They are both wearing shirts with the People First logo on them. Text: Self-advocacy movement. People First Conference Salem, OR. January 8, 1974. Text below photo: 2 self-advocates at ADAPT protest in Atlanta. Source: Tom Olin. The disability-led advocacy movement began in Europe in the 1960s when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities started their own social clubs and discussed their desire for self-determination. This movement spread to the U.S. in Oregon when People First was formed and held its first conference in 1974. This advocacy movement fights for the rights of people with disabilities to make their own decisions and be recognized and treated as adults.
In 1974, Reverend Wade Blank helped people with disabilities leave an abusive nursing home, typical of the time, and form their own community, the Atlantis Community, in Denver, Colorado. Before he came to Denver, he was involved in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. After working at a nursing home, he helped people with disabilities fight for their rights. Black and white newspaper clipping photo. Denver Post photos by Ernie Leyba: A slim woman and man in a manual wheelchair are surrounded by laundry they are folding and stacking. They look over their shoulders as the man shakes hands with a man in a dark suit (Governor Lamm) who is talking with another standing man with longish blonde hair (Wade Blank). Caption reads: Gov. Dick Lamm, left, and Director Wade Blank visit laundry. Handicapped "hot line" has been set up in laundry, which is also office. Graphic Text: The Atlantis Community. Denver, Colorado. 1974. Source:, Ernie Leyba, Denver Post.
Photo of four men and women lying wrapped in sleeping bags or blankets on pads in the street in front of a bus. The bus (15 A) once bound for Lowry AFB, now appears empty and on the front are 3 handmade posters. Two are outside under the windshield wipers. One says "Taxation without Transportation!" with a drawing of the access symbol; the other has a picture of a stick figure person next to an equals sign and the words Free Ride, and then an access symbol guy next to an equals sign and the words No Ride. Inside the window a third sign is partially visible with the access symbol and the words Right to Ride. There are police/traffic barriers down the middle of the street and a manual wheelchair. Text: The Gang of 19 Bus Protest. Denver, Colorado. July 1978. Source:, Glen Martin, Denver Post. In 1978, 19 members of Atlantis blocked traffic in protest of the inaccessibility of RTD public buses inspired by the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement. The bus protests continued and in 1983, Blank and Mike Auberger founded ADAPT, American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit.
ADAPT’s first protest was at the 1983 APTA convention. The work of the “Gang of 19” and ADAPT led to accessible buses in Denver and their movement spread across the country. Black and white newspaper clipping photo of a person in a manual wheelchair sitting holding a sign that reads "Make Public Transit Public." In front of her people move suitcases from the sidewalk to a vehicle. Access to buses is Demanded. A member of a group called ADAPT, or American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation, picks downtown Hilton Hotel where the American public Transit Association is meeting. ADAPT is demanding wheelchair access to all U.S public buses, and their motto is, “No taxation for Transportation”. Graphic Text: ADAPT’s first action: APTA Convention. Denver, Colorado. October 23-26, 1983. Source:, Steve Groer, Rocky Mountain News.
photo of Wade Blank and Mike Auberger next to Gang of 19 plaque on the side walk with ADAPT logo and ‘We will ride” visible. Text: Wade Blank and Mike Auberger. co-founders of ADAPT at 'Gang of 19' plaque. Denver, Colorado. 1992. Source: Tom Olin ADAPT later became American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today and continues to fight for disability rights using nonviolent direct action across the U.S. Learn more about ADAPT at their website. Additionally, learn more about the history of ADAPT at the ADAPT Online Museum.
In Pennsylvania, parents sued when their children were not getting access to an education because they were disabled. In PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1972), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the state could not deny equal education because of disability, referencing Brown v. Board of Education. This led to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which was reauthorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law states that every child with a disability has the right to receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs. PARC is now known as The Arc of Pennsylvania. Learn more about IDEA at the official website. Black and white photo of a preschool-age girl using walker with a wheelchair behind her at a protest. Beside the girl, a woman is holding a sign with images that says, “We will Ride. Lowman Special Education Center.” Text: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 1975. Activist Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins at 1987 ADAPT Protest. Phoenix, AZ. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of protest outside the Federal Building. Steve Dias faces San Francisco City Hall with a group of fellow protestors. On the back of his wheelchair is a sign that says, “We shall overcome.” Text: 504 Sit-In. San Francisco, CA. April 5,1977-May 4, 1977. Steve Dias and fellow protesters rally outside of the Federal Building. April 5. Source: Anthony Tusler. The 504 Sit In was the longest sit-in of a government building in U.S history, lasting 25 days. Learn more about this event at DREDF’s website.
After HEW (now HHS) Director Joseph Califano Jr. refused to sign the 504 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protected disabled people from discrimination by the government and anything funded by the government, disabled people protested at offices around the country. The only one that lasted was in San Fransisco. Black and white photo of picket line of protesters outside the Federal Building. Two protesters are in the center of photo and one is holding sign that says, “Sign 504 Now.” Protestors walking and in wheelchairs can be seen protesting in the background in front of City Hall. Text: Protesters in picket line outside of the Federal Building. April 5. Source: Anthony Tusler.
Black and white photo of crowd of protesters outside of the Federal Building. A sign language interpreter stands on a van wheelchair lift, signing to the crowd. Text: Sign Language Interpreter standing on wheelchair lift in front of crowd outside Federal Building. April 5. Source: Anthony Tusler. The activists received assistance from labor unions, the black panthers and religious communities. The protest received significant coverage and a group of protesters representing the diversity of the group, including Judy Heumann, Kitty Cone, Dennis Billups, and Brad Lomax, went to D.C to further the cause and eventually meet with Califano, who would sign the regulations into law after their hard-fought efforts.
The 504 sin-in brought together many people with different disabilities and of all races, but inequities and prejudices still existed. Despite being a spokesperson for the sit-in, Dennis Billups was left out of important meetings and, along with other leaders of color of the event, is just recently starting to be recognized. He acted as “chief morale officer” during the sit-in and led the candlelit vigil outside the HEW director’s home that helped pressure him to act. Brad Lomax was a Black Panther active in both civil rights and disability rights. He helped start and run the East Oakland CIL sponsored by the Black Panthers. He also was an important leader in the sit-in and, along with fellow Black Panthers, was integral in the success of the sit-in. The Black Panthers participated in the protest, provided meals to protesters, and covered the event in their newspaper. Black and white photo of protesters sitting and standing inside the Federal Building in front of a window. Text: Protesters inside the Federal Building on the first day of the demonstration. April 5. Source: Anthony Tusler.
Black and white photo of crowd of protesters in wheelchairs on the road near a curb. One of the protesters is breaking up the curb with a hammer. Three protesters hold signs that say, “Build a better way,” “Walk of shame,” and, “Cut the curbs.” Text: Walk of Shame. Los Angeles, CA. March 6, 1988. Source: Tom Olin. In 1988, ADAPT protesters took sledgehammers to the inaccessible “Walk of Fame” in Hollywood, chanting, “Walk of shame!”
Activists had been asking for curb cuts and accessible paths for years, but nothing was done and a wheelchair user was hit and killed because he was forced to ride in the street. Black and white photo of protesters in wheelchairs on a curb with signs. A piece of plywood is place on the curb, creating a ramp to the street. The plywood has painted on it, “People’s ramp 1, access now,” with a Hollywood star. A wheelchair user sits at start of the plywood holding a sign that says, “Build = access for all.” Text: Build Equal Access for All. Protesters at Hollywood Walk of Fame. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of crowd of wheelchair-users on sidewalk. In the center, the sign, “Asking did not work,” is on the back of a person’s wheelchair. To the right of them is another protestor with a sign that says, “= rights not jail,” taped to the back of their wheelchair. To the left is a person is a scooter with a sign of the back of it that says, “Curb cuts, not fines,” and to the left of them, another person in a scooter holds a sign that says, “I’d hammer out justice.” Text: Asking did not work. 30 ADAPT activists attended the protest. Source: Tom Olin. The protest brought media attention. A congressman went to the protest and promised to make the sidewalks accessible in two weeks.
Founded in 1864, Gallaudet University was the first university for Deaf and hard of hearing students. In 1987, the college encouraged Deaf applicants to apply when they were searching for a new president. Two of the three finalists were deaf, but Gallaudet announced they would be going with the hearing applicant. Students shut down the college in protest and gained support from around the world. In response to the activists’ demands, Gallaudet appointed Dr. I. King Jordan as Gallaudet’s first deaf president and agreed to create a Deaf majority on the Board of Trustees. Learn more about Gallaudet University at their website. Black and white photo of marching protesters. A line of protestors hold a large banner that says, “Deaf Prez Now!” Text: Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. March 6, 1900-March 13, 1988. Source: Gallaudet University Archives.
Black and white photo of Paul Longmore sitting in a wheelchair, wearing glasses and in front of a microphone. Behind him are fellow protesters and one holds a sign that says, “Stop work penalties.” Text: Paul Longmore Book Burning Protest. Los Angeles, CA. October 18, 1988. Source: Tom Olin. Paul Longmore was a disabled historian, author, activist and professor at San Francisco State University (SFSU). When he started earning royalties from one of his history books, he was informed he would lose his government benefits, including the in-home services he needed to live, as the royalties counted as unearned income.
In protest of these rules that penalized disabled workers, Longmore burned his book in front of the LA Federal Building with a group of disabled protesters chanting “Let Us Work.” Close-up black and white photo of the book, The invention of George Washington, set aflame in a burn bin. Text: Paul Longmore burning his book, The Invention of George Washington, in protest. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of man with a mustache smiling while holding his guide cane and showing a sign that says, “We Want to Work.” Text: We Want To Work. Protester at book burning. Source: Tom Olin. As a result, Social Security changed the rules on royalties in what became known as the Longmore Amendment. Many other penalties for working still exist, and activists are fighting to change them to this day. Learn more about Paul Longmore at SFSU’s website. And read an LA Times article from 1988 about Longmore’s protest at their website.
In the case of ADAPT v. Burnley, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the 3 percent spending cap on accessible transit in the Department of Transportation budget was too low, and that all newly built buses must have wheelchair lifts. Black and white photo of group of protesters in wheelchairs marching down a sidewalk wearing revolutionary attire. One protester is holding the ADAPT American flag. Text: ADAPT v. Burnley Protest. Philadelphia, PA. May 14, 1989. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo showing part of the liberty bell. Behind the bell is a protester in revolutionary attire in a wheelchair with the ADAPT American Flag behind her. Text: Protester at Liberty Bell with ADAPT flag. Source: Tom Olin. On the eve of this ruling, May 14, 1989, ADAPT activists marched from Independence Hall to the Liberty Bell, surrounding it for hours while wearing revolutionary attire in support of the case.
In the spring of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was stalled in Congress, so ADAPT planned a “Wheels of Justice” Campaign in D.C. to push the ADA forward. It began with the Wheels of Justice March from the White House to the Capitol building. 700 people joined the march chanting, “What Do We Want?” “Our ADA!” “When Do We Want It?” “NOW!!” Black and white photo of front of a crowd marching through a street. There are four wheelchair-users in the front with two holding signs that say, “We Shall Overcome,” and Access is a civil right.” There is also a man walking with a guide dog beside the wheelchair-users. Text: Wheels of Justice March. Washington, D.C. March 12, 1990. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of Justin Dart giving a speech surrounded by a crowd of protesters; many in wheelchairs. Text: Justin Dart Speech. Washington, D.C. March 12, 1990. Source: Tom Olin. Once at the Capitol, they listened to speeches from ADA advocates including Justin Dart.
Then, 60 activists began crawling up the steps, in what is now known as the “Capitol Crawl.” The point of the crawl was to show the indignities and obstacles people with disabilities faced daily because of physical and societal barriers. After reaching the top, activists spoke to House Speaker Tom Foley and House Minority Leader Bob Michels and demanded the ADA be passed without any changes. Learn more about the Capitol Crawl at the History Channel’s website. Black and white photo showing two disabled people crawling up the steps of the capital. A photographer can be seen at the top of the stairs and the capital building can be seen in background. Text: The Capitol Crawl. Washington, D.C. March 12, 1990. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of a crowd of protesters, many in wheelchairs, protesting in the Capitol Rotunda with their fists in the air. Text: Taking the Rotunda. Washington, D.C. March 13, 1990. Source: Tom Olin. The day after the Capitol Crawl, 200 activists gathered in the Capitol Rotunda and met with House sponsors of the ADA. When they would not guarantee swift passage without changes to the bill, the activists began chanting “ADA now” and refused to leave the rotunda. 104 protesters were arrested by the Capitol Police.
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990 and said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” Evan Kemp was on his right and Justin Dart on his left. Both were integral in getting the act signed into law, but not without years of activism from other people with disabilities across the United States. Learn more about the ADA at the offiicial website. Black and white photo of George H. W. Bush signing the ADA outside at a desk. Surrounding him are Evan Kemp, Justin Dart, Rev. Harold Wilke, and Swift Parrino. Text: The Signing of the ADA. Washington, D.C. July 26, 1990. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of line of protesters, many in wheelchairs, marching up one side of the road with cars on the other side. One protester in the front of the line holds the ADAPT American flag. Around two months after the passage of the ADA, ADAPT was in Atlanta starting their new initiative advocating for community based attendant care services. They attempted to get a meeting with the Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Louis Sullivan. When that proved unsuccessful, the next day, 200 activists marched down Martin Luther King Drive to the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, blocking the entrances to protest Dr. Sullivan’s interview with NPR.
Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson had intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. After receiving treatment, they wanted to leave a psychiatric hospital and live in their communities with the proper supports. In Olmstead v. L.C. (1990), the Supreme Court ruled that under the ADA, people with disabilities have a right to live and receive services in the community. Color photo of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson standing in front of the Supreme Court. Text: Olmstead v. L.C. Washington D.C. June 22, 1999. Source: Tom Olin.
Black and white photo of Lois Curtis sitting at her kitchen table, smiling with a paper in her hand. To the left of her is her fridge and behind her is a white board and framed drawing. Text: Lois Curtis in her home. Stone Mountain, GA. Source: Tom Olin As a result, Curtis and Wilson were able to leave the institution and live in their communities along with many other Americans with disabilities. Lois Curtis passed away from cancer in November 2022.
RespectAbility’s Disability History series would not have been possible without the support of Tom Olin and his collection manager, Dan Wilkins. Tom has been documenting the Disability Rights Movement since 1985. He took photography classes at community college while working as an attendant for people with disabilities in San Fransisco. After photographing the founders of ADAPT at an LA protest, he began photographing key moments in the Disability Rights Movement across the country. Tom continues to participate in the movement and empower the next generation of activists. Learn more about Tom Olin at his collection’s website. Color photo of Tom Olin standing with his arms crossed in front of the ‘Road to Freedom’ bus that has the American flag on it and Tom’s photo of George H.W. Bush signing the ADA. Text: Tom Olin in front of the Road to Freedom bus, which celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Source: Anthony Tusler.

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