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A Quick History of Disability Rights

May 7, 2020

While many people with disabilities today have the freedom to live independently with the assistance of support services, this was not always the case. In fact, freedom and choice are something people with disabilities have had to fight for.

1500 BC – 500 AD

The first recorded reference to a mental disability is from 1552 BC. During the Ancient Era, physical difference in the form of disability was seen as a form of inferiority. Children with disabilities were publicly persecuted and it was reportedly a legal requirement to abandon disabled infants.

Some older individuals with disabilities were kept by the royal courts as court jesters to entertain the royal family.

500 – 1300

The Middle Ages marked a period of neglect and fear of those with disabilities. In 787 AD, the first asylum for abandoned infants was founded, in which most children did not survive. “Idiot cages” were placed in town centers to entertain town citizens. “Ships of Fools” were also common during this time, sailing from port to port and charging admission to view their passengers with disabilities.

1300 – 1700

During this period of time, religion became less of a focus, which allowed for advancement in sciences, particularly in health care, leading to a better understanding of disabilities.

1700 – 1800

During the English Reformation, the earliest attempts to teach blind and deaf individuals took place. This encouraged an interest in educating people with other disabilities. During this time, the classification of mental illness and disability began, along with individual case histories and record keeping. An array of services provided in a humane environment replaced the prison-like treatment of people with disabilities.

1800 – 1950

Due to continued medical advancement during this period, people began to speak out about the conditions of people with disabilities. It was believed that with proper training, many disabled individuals could return to the community and lead productive lives.

In the 1840s, the first training schools for children with disabilities were established. In 1850, the United States made the first attempt to determine the number of people with intellectual deficiency, and there was a reported increase in the number of people with disabilities in the following decades.

In the late 1850s, the number of training schools had increased, but they quickly became asylums providing custodial care, and by 1875 many states began building institutions specifically for this use. These institutions no longer encouraged education and interaction with the community. By 1923, a wide number of private institutions had also been built across the country.

Also in 1923, special education classes became common across the United States, with almost 34,000 students being educated in this environment. Professionals began to see the positive results of education and community interaction for people with disabilities.

1950 – 1970

From 1950 to 1970, parents of children with disabilities formed a movement across the United States with the following goals:

  • Improve the conditions in state institutions
  • Create community services
  • Initiate legislation
  • Increase education
  • Increase employment opportunities

From the 1960s through the 1990s, a variety of laws went into effect to ensure proper and fair treatment of those who are disabled. By the early 1990s, many states had closed their public institutions and most other states had reduced the number and size of their institutions.

1970 – Present

In the late 1970s, a self-advocacy movement began among individuals with disabilities who demanded to be heard.

By the 1980s, independent living and self-direction became a popular option for individuals with disabilities. This focused on making one’s own choices and having access to appropriate services. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law as the first comprehensive federal law in America to address the discrimination against those with disabilities.

Today, individuals with disabilities are able to advocate for themselves and live a self-directed lifestyle. Thanks to medical advancement, diagnoses can take place early and allow for accommodation in daily life. This allows for acceptance into a society with regulations and laws against discrimination, allowing individuals with disabilities to live lives vastly improved from the past. But there’s still so many ways we can keep pushing accessibility and inclusion forward.