GT IndependenceResources and ToolsResourcesA Quick History of Disability Rights

A Quick History of Disability Rights

May 7, 2020

Today, many people with disabilities have the freedom to live independently. This means they have access to the support they need to live life the way they choose.

People with disabilities form the largest minority group in the world. Over 15% or 1 billion people live with disabilities worldwide. But basic freedom is something that people with disabilities have fought for from the very beginning.

1500 BC – 500 AD: The Obsession With “Perfection”

The first recorded reference to a mental disability is from 1552 BC. During this time, people with disabilities were seen as inferior. This is especially true in Greek and Roman culture, which was obsessed with mental and physical perfection.

Children with disabilities were publicly persecuted. In some places, it was a legal requirement to abandon disabled infants. Older people with disabilities were often forced to perform as court jesters for royal families.

500 – 1300: The Ships of Fools

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, many of which had disabilities. 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. Sometimes, these ships were hired to take people with disabilities away from their communities. Other times, these ships sailed from port to port and charged admission to view their passengers with disabilities.

1300 – 1700: Rise of the Almshouses

During the Renaissance, science, rationality, and art became the main focus in Europe. Queen Elizabeth ordered the government to take care of the poor. These Elizabethan Poor Laws led to the creation of almshouses. Here, people with disabilities could receive long-term shelter.

During this time, religions couldn’t agree on whether people with disabilities were sinners or saints. These viewpoints led to the segregation of people with disabilities from the community. And with the rise of the reformation, the Roman Catholic Church’s authority grew weaker. This led to many of the church’s charities being shut down. This left more people with disabilities without any sort of support.

1700 – 1800: English Reformation

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 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 are still so many ways we can keep pushing accessibility and inclusion forward.