Disability Rights & Education History

Explore a brief history of the ongoing fight for disability rights and for free quality education in the United States.

Disability Rights & Education History
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Disability Rights & Education History


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was only signed into law in 1990.


There was no legal definition of disability until 1973.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that schools serve students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment.” This means students must have the opportunity to participate in general education settings with non-disabled peers for as much of the day as possible—ideally in inclusion settings.

History Timeline

In the early 19th century, many young people with disabilities were put into poorhouses or almshouses. Wealthier parents would often keep their children with disabilities at home.

In the mid-19th century, many “training schools for the feeble-minded” opened and offered individualized instruction in academics and later in vocational training. Early on, many of these training schools were privately owned. After the American Civil War, many of the new training schools that opened were publicly financed state schools.


The Perkins Institution, later known as the Perkins School for the Blind, the first school for the blind in the U.S., opened in Massachusetts.


The first publicly funded institution that provided care and education for people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities was established in 1851 and called the New York State Asylum for Idiots.


Gallaudet University, originally named the National Deaf Mute College, opened in Washington D.C.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, many local asylums opened and housed individuals with disabilities. These asylums were often overcrowded and unregulated.

A print displaying an early state school in New York

Photo Credit: Museum of disAbility Archives

From the late 19th century-mid 20th century, some doctors in attendance at asylums and training schools, such as the Montana State Training School, practiced forced sterilization on people with disabilities.


The Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the “expulsion of a student solely due to poor academic ability.”


Rhode Island opened the first public special education class in the U.S.


The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in ordering the exclusion of a child form public school, held that “the very sight of a child with cerebral palsy will produce a depressing and nauseating effect” upon others.


The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of involuntary sterilization in the Buck v. Bell case.

The historic case Brown v. The Board of Education set a precedent for a free and public education for all, which meant that families could begin fighting for equal education opportunities for their children with disabilities.

The independent living movement was led by the disability community. The movement fought against institutionalization and separation and for inclusion in their communities and in education as well as independence in their lives and living situations.

Photo credit: Getty Images

In the 1960s and ’70s, friendships were cultivated among a generation of people who attended a summer camp, Camp Jened. Many of these campers went on to become some of the foremost activists of the modern disability civil rights movement. A documentary was made about these campers and activists, Crip Camp.

Photo Credit: NY Times

For one year, the ESEA authorized federal funding to states to establish sponsoring institutions and centers for “children with handicaps.”

ABC News reporter Geraldo Rivera visited the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island in New York. Watch Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace – Geraldo Rivera 1972 Exposé – Full Short Documentary.

In 1973, the first legal protections were written for people with disabilities in Section 504. This legislation helped pave the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Under Section 504 Regulations:

  • No program receiving federal funds could discriminate against people with disabilities.
  • Require a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.

Section 504 was not immediately signed into law.

President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142). The law guaranteed access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) to every child with a disability.

Watch a video on the History of Special Education and the IDEA.

A woman stands a a table, children sitting at the table are sitting in wheelchairs

Photo Credit: Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the ADA

When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, the disability rights community demanded that Carter sign and implement the regulations immediately. Instead of signing 504 into law, Joseph Califano, the new United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary, appointed a task force to review the regulations. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) insisted that the regulations be signed unchanged by April 5th.

April 5th, 1977

When there was no response from the government, hundreds of people with disabilities and their supporters sat-in at HEW offices in several cities around the country. In San Francisco, protestors took over the entire 4th floor of the HEW building in a sit-in that lasted 28 days.

in the foreground a woman in a wheelchair has her back to us along with other members of the sit-in. In front of her is a large glass door with a security guard, outside are additional protestors

Photo Credit: A photograph taken by HolLynn D’Lil, one of the protesters, from inside the 504 Sit-In.

At that time in history, there was simply no access—no right to an education, no public transit. You couldn’t get into a library or city hall, much less a courtroom.”

– 504 Sit-In participant, author, and disability rights advocate Corbett Joan O’Toole

Inside the HEW offices, the need for accommodations amplified. Some people required space for walking aids and wheelchairs. Deaf occupiers needed translators. Protesters with paraplegia and quadriplegia needed assistants to lift and turn them when sleeping and sitting. Over the course of so many weeks with rudimentary accommodations inside an office building, protesters compromised their health to achieve their goals.”

-Dr. Catherine Kudlick, professor of history and director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, “The 1977 Disability Rights Protest That Broke Records and Changed Laws

April 28, 1977

Califano signed the Section 504 regulations unchanged.

Watch Kathy Martinez in part 07 of 14: “Solidarity in 504 Demonstrations” Video.

In 1983 the disabled academic Mike Oliver coined the phrase social model of disability.

Eye Icon representing WatchThe Social Model of Disability – National Disability Arts Collection and Archive

This term was the result of the work of multiple disability advocates and allies. The idea of the social model of disability had begun to be developed as early as the 1960s alongside the disability rights movement.

In 1975  The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation said:

In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

In the social model of disability, disability exists in the interaction between the individual and society – it is attitudes, physical barriers, restricted access, and systemic exclusion that disable individuals. In the medical model of disability, disability is a personal issue, and the barriers are within the person.

The social model of disability is a move towards creating a more equitable and inclusive world.

When the A.D.A. became stalled in Congress on March 12, 1990, demonstrators attended the Wheels of Justice Rally on the National Mall.

As an action during this rally, hundreds of demonstrators abandoned their wheelchairs and crutches and crawled up the marble steps to the west Capitol entrance this became known as The Capitol Crawl. The action highlighted the injustices of inaccessibility that the A.D.A.’s “reasonable accommodations” clause was intended to fix. One of these demonstrators was 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan, pictured below.

A group of handicapped people led by 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington

Photo Credit: Jeff Markowitz/AP Photo

Watch Jennifer Keelan speak about “Climbing the Capitol Steps for ADA.”

The ADA is a piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.

It was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities.

To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

– ada.gov

ADA National Network: Signing the ADA into Law Video

Note: Some students with disabilities may not qualify for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because they do not need special education, but may qualify for accommodations under Section 504 or the ADA.

This case began a push for inclusion settings in education. The term inclusion isn’t found within the IDEA specifically. Instead they use the term ‘Least Restrictive Environment.’

This case established inclusion settings where students with disability are alongside their general education classmates supported with supplementary services, aids, and tools should be the standard whenever possible as “inclusion classrooms are often the Least Restrictive Environments.”

IDEA section 614

 Provides funds to states to assist them in providing free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children ages three through 21 with disabilities who are in need of special education and related services.”

They also begin to count how many children are receiving services.


The Amendments Act broadens the interpretation of disability from the original language so that the focus can be on if discrimination is occurring rather than if the person falls under the disability category.

The Amendments Act retains the definition of disability under Section 504 and the ADA but emphasizes that the definition should be interpreted broadly. Among other things, the Amendments Act directs that the ameliorating effects of mitigating measures (other than ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses) not be considered in determining whether an individual has a disability; expands the scope of “major life activities” by providing a non-exhaustive list of general activities and a non-exhaustive list of major bodily functions; clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active; and clarifies the meaning of “regarded as” having a disability, including that individuals “regarded as” having a disability are not entitled to reasonable accommodations or reasonable modifications.”

Amendments Act

 With the passage of the ADA, our nation committed itself to a clear and comprehensive mandate: the elimination of discrimination against people with disabilities.”

Statement of Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband on the 30th Anniversary of the ADA

Disability Visibility Project published a series of essays by Disabled People of Color, #ADA30InColor, reflecting on the past, present, and future of disability rights and justice, below are a just a few, but we encourage you to check them all out!


External Resources