Disability Rights Movement
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Disability Rights Movement
Alternative access to the subway in Japan
Floor marker for disabled people in Narita Airport, Japan

The disability rights movement is a global[1][2]social movement to secure equal opportunities and equal rights for all people with disabilities.

It is made up of organizations of disability activists around the world working together with similar goals and demands, such as: accessibility and safety in architecture, transportation, and the physical environment; equal opportunities in independent living, employment equity, education, and housing; and freedom from discrimination, abuse, neglect, and from other rights violations.[3] Disability activists are working to break institutional, physical, and societal barriers that prevent people with disabilities from living their lives like other citizens.[3][4]

Disability barriers

The social model of disability suggests disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person's impairment. This model suggests barriers in society are created by ableism. When barriers are removed, people with disabilities can be independent and equal in society.

There are three main types of barriers:[5]

  1. Attitudinal barriers: are created by people who see only disability when associating with people with disabilities in some way. These attitudinal barriers can be witnessed through bullying, discrimination, and fear. These barriers include low expectations of people with disabilities. These barriers contribute to all other barriers.[5][6][7] Attitudes towards people with disabilities in low and middle-income countries can be even more extreme.[8]
  2. Environmental barriers: inaccessible environments, natural or built, create disability by creating barriers to inclusion.
  3. Institutional barriers: include many laws, policies, practices, or strategies that discriminate against people with disabilities. For example, a study of five Southeast Asian countries found that electoral laws do not specially protect the political rights of persons with disabilities, while 'some banks do not allow visually disabled people to open accounts, and HIV testing centers often refuse to accept sign language interpreters due to confidentiality policies'.[9] Restrictive laws exist in some countries, particularly affecting people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.[10]

Other barriers include: internalised barriers (low expectations of people with disabilities can undermine their confidence and aspirations), inadequate data and statistics, lack of participation and consultation of disabled people.


People with physical disabilities

Access to public areas such as city streets, public buildings, and restrooms are some of the more visible changes brought about in recent decades to remove physical barriers. A noticeable change in some parts of the world is the installation of elevators, automatic doors, wide doors and corridors, transit lifts, wheelchair ramps, curb cuts, and the elimination of unnecessary steps where ramps and elevators are not available, allowing people in wheelchairs and with other mobility disabilities to use public sidewalks and public transit more easily and safely.

People with visual disabilities

Code Signs for People with CVD

People with color vision deficiency (CVD) regularly deal with implicit discrimination due to their inability to distinguish certain colors. A system of geometrically shaped code signs known as Coloradd was developed by Professor Miguel Neiva of the University of Minho, Portugal in 2010 to indicate colours to people who have difficulty discerning them.[11] It has been adopted rapidly by numerous businesses to boost sales.

People with developmental disabilities

Advocates for the rights of people with developmental disabilities focus their efforts on gaining acceptance in the workforce and in everyday activities and events from which they might have been excluded in the past. Unlike many of the leaders in the physical disability rights community, self-advocacy has been slow in developing for people with developmental disabilities. As a result, much of the work done by the Disability Rights Movement was completed by allies, or those without disabilities but with a strong connection to someone with disabilities. Parents, friends, and siblings fought for education and acceptance when their loved ones with cognitive disabilities could not.[12] Public awareness of the civil rights movement for this population remains limited, and the stereotyping of people with developmental disabilities as non-contributing citizens who are dependent on others remains common. Today, the movement has a more social focus to increase this public awareness, as evidenced by the "R-Word" Campaign, in which they try to eliminate the colloquial use of the word "retard."[13]

People with mental health issues

Advocates for the rights of people with mental health disabilities focus mainly on self-determination, and an individual's ability to live independently.[14]

The right to have an independent life, using paid assistant care instead of being institutionalized, if the individual wishes, is a major goal of the disability rights movement, and is the main goal of the similar independent living and self-advocacy movements, which are most strongly associated with people with intellectual disabilities and mental health disorders. These movements have supported people with disabilities to live as more active participants in society.[15]

Access to education and employment

Access to education and employment have also been a major focus of the disability rights movement. Adaptive technologies, enabling people to work jobs they could not have previously, help create access to jobs and economic independence. Access in the classroom has helped improve education opportunities and independence for people with disabilities.

Freedom from discrimination and abuse

Freedom from abuse, neglect, and violations of a person's rights are also important goals of the disability rights movement. Abuse and neglect includes inappropriate seclusion and restraint, inappropriate use of force by staff and/or providers, threats, harassment and/or retaliation by staff or providers, failure to provide adequate nutrition, clothing, and/or medical and mental health care, and/or failure to provide a clean and safe living environment, as well as other issues which pose a serious threat to the physical and psychological well-being of a person with a disability. Violations of patients' rights include failure to obtain informed consent for treatment, failure to maintain the confidentiality of treatment records, and inappropriate restriction of the right to communicate and associate with others, as well as other restrictions of rights.

As a result of the work done through the disability rights movement, significant disability rights legislation was passed in the 1970s through the 1990s in the U.S.[16]


In the UK

Disability rights activist outside Scottish Parliament, 30 March 2013

In the United Kingdom, following extensive activism by people with disabilities over several decades, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA 1995) was passed. This made it unlawful in the United Kingdom to discriminate against people with disabilities in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transport. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides support for this Act. Equivalent legislation exists in Northern Ireland, which is enforced by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.

Following the introduction of the Bedroom Tax (officially the Under-occupancy penalty) in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, disability activists have played a significant role in the development of Bedroom Tax protests.[17] A wide range of benefit changes are estimated to affect disabled people disproportionately and to compromise disabled people's right to independent living.[18]

In the US

The disability rights movement began in the 1960s,[19] encouraged by the examples of the Civil Rights Movement and women's rights movements.[20]

It was at this time that disability rights advocacy began to have a cross-disability focus. People with different kinds of disabilities (physical and mental disabilities, along with visual and hearing disabilities) and different essential needs came together to fight for a common cause.[4]

In 1948, a watershed for the movement was the proof of the existence of physical and program barriers. The proof was provided as a specification for barrier free usable facilities for people with disabilities. The specifications provided the minimum requirements for barrier free physical and program access. An example of barriers are; providing only steps to enter buildings; lack of maintenance of walkways; locations not connected with public transit; lack of visual and hearing communications ends up segregating individuals with disabilities from independent, participation, and opportunities. The ANSI - Barrier Free Standard (phrase coined by Dr. Timothy J. Nugent, the lead investigator) called "ANSI A117.1, Making Buildings Accessible to and Usable by the Physically Handicapped", provides the indisputable proof that the barriers exist. It is based on disability ergonomic research conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign campus from 1946 to 1986. The research was codified in the ANSI A117.1 standard in 1961, 1971, 1980, and 1986. The standard is the outcome of physical therapists, bio-mechanical engineers, and individuals with disabilities who developed and participated in over 40 years of research. Easter Seals Education Committee Chairman Harold Wilke was tasked with assembling that diverse group in 1959. The standard provides the criteria for modifying programs and the physical site to provide independence. Applying the researched standards criteria presents reliable access and non-hazardous conditions. In October 2011 the standard turned 50 years old. The standard has been emulated globally since its introduction in Europe, Asia, Japan, Australia, and Canada, in the early 1960s.[21]

One of the most important developments of the disability rights movement was the growth of the independent living movement, which emerged in California in the 1960s through the efforts of Edward Roberts and other wheelchair-using individuals. This movement, a subset of the disability rights movement, postulates that people with disabilities are the best experts on their needs, and therefore they must take the initiative, individually and collectively, in designing and promoting better solutions and must organize themselves for political power. Besides de-professionalization and self-representation, the independent living movement's ideology comprises de-medicalization of disability, de-institutionalization and cross-disability (i.e. inclusion in the independent living movement regardless of diagnoses).[4] Similarly, The Architectural Barriers Act was passed in 1968, mandating that federally constructed buildings and facilities be accessible to people with physical disabilities. This act is generally considered to be the first ever-federal disability rights legislation.[22] Unfortunately for those with cognitive disabilities, their disability made it more difficult to be the best expert of their own needs, hindering their ability to self-advocate as their wheelchair-using counterparts could. Self-representation was much more difficult for those who could not articulate their thoughts, leading to their dependence on others to carry on the movement.

In 1973 the (American) Rehabilitation Act became law; Sections 501, 503, and 504 prohibited discrimination in federal programs and services and all other programs or services receiving federal funds. Key language in the Rehabilitation Act, found in Section 504, states "No otherwise qualified handicapped [sic] individual in the United States, shall, solely by reason of his [sic] handicap [sic], be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."[23][24] This was the first civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities.[25]

Another crucial turning point was the 504 Sit-in in 1977 of government buildings operated by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), conceived by Frank Bowe and organized by the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities,[19] that led to the release of regulations pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. On April 5, 1977, activists began to demonstrate and some sat-in in the offices found in ten of the federal regions including New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. The two most noteworthy protests occurred in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The protesters demanded the signing of regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.[14][16] There were about 300 people in Washington, D.C. who marched to and then demonstrated inside the HEW building where Secretary Joseph Califano's office was. He was the person who was to sign the regulations, but was delaying the process. Although he met with a few protest representatives, including Frank Bowe, he still did not sign. This action led many protesters to continue their sit-in overnight, but they then left after 28 hours.[14] The more successful sit-in occurred in San Francisco, led by Judith Heumann.[26] The first day of protests marked the first of a 25-day sit-in. Close to 120 disability activists and protesters occupied the HEW building. Califano finally signed on April 28, 1977. This protest was significant not only because its goal was achieved, but also because it was the foremost concerted effort between people of different disabilities coming together in support of legislation that affected the overall disability population, rather than only specific groups.[14][16] Prior to the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act was the most important disability rights legislation in the United States.[15]

In 1978 disability rights activists in Denver, Colorado, organized by the Atlantis Community, held a sit-in and blockade of the Denver Regional Transit Authority buses in 1978. They were protesting the fact that city's transit system was completely inaccessible for the physically disabled. This action proved to be just the first in a series of civil disobedience demonstrations that lasted for a year until the Denver Transit Authority finally bought buses equipped with wheelchair lifts. In 1983, Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) was responsible for another civil disobedience campaign also in Denver that lasted seven years. They targeted the American Public Transport Association in protest of inaccessible public transportation; this campaign ended in 1990 when bus lifts for people using wheelchairs were required nationwide by the Americans with Disabilities Act.[23]

Another significant protest related to disability rights was the Deaf President Now protest by the Gallaudet University students in Washington, D.C. in March 1988. The 8-day (March 6 - March 13) demonstration and occupation and lock-out of the school began when the Board of Trustees appointed a new hearing President, Elisabeth Zinser, over two Deaf candidates. The students' primary grievance was that the university, which was dedicated to the education of people who are Deaf, had never had a Deaf president, someone representative of them. Of the protesters' four demands, the main one was the resignation of the current president and the appointment of a Deaf one. The demonstration consisted of about 2,000 student and nonstudent participants. The protests took place on campus, in government buildings, and in the streets. In the end, all the students' demands were met and I. King Jordan was appointed the first Deaf President of the university.[16]

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and it provided comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Closely modeled after the Civil Rights Act and Section 504, the law was the most sweeping disability rights legislation in American history. It mandated that local, state, and federal governments and programs be accessible, that employers with more than 15 employees make "reasonable accommodations" for workers with disabilities and not discriminate against otherwise qualified workers with disabilities, and that public accommodations such as restaurants and stores not discriminate against people with disabilities and that they make reasonable modifications to ensure access for disabled members of the public. The act also mandated access in public transportation, communication, and in other areas of public life.

The first Disability Pride March in the United States was held in Boston in 1990. A second Disability Pride March was held in Boston in 1991. There were no subsequent Disability Pride Marches/Parades for many years, until Chicago on Sunday, July 18, 2004.[27][28] It was funded with $10,000 in seed money that Sarah Triano received in 2003 as part of the Paul G. Hearne Leadership award from the American Association of People with Disabilities.[28] According to Triano, fifteen hundred people attended the parade.[28] Yoshiko Dart was the parade marshal.[27]

Exhibitions and collections

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History opened an exhibition that examined the history of activism by people with disabilities, their friends, and families to secure the civil rights guaranteed to all Americans. Objects on view included the pen President George H.W. Bush used to sign the Act and one of the first ultralight wheelchairs. The exhibition was designed for maximum accessibility. Web-based kiosks - prototypes for a version that will eventually be available to museums and other cultural institutions - provided alternate formats to experience the exhibition. The exhibition was open from July 6, 2000 to July 23, 2001.[29]

See also


External links

Further reading

  • Bagenstos, Samuel. Law and the Contradictions of the Disability Rights Movement (Yale University Press, 2009). ISBN 978-0-300-12449-1
  • Barnartt, Sharon N. and Scotch, Richard. Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970-1999 (Gallaudet University Press, 2001) ISBN 978-1-56368-112-7
  • Colker, Ruth and Milani, Adam. Everyday Law for Individuals with Disabilities (Paradigm Publishers, 2005). ISBN 978-1-59451-145-5
  • Fleischer, Doris Zames and Zames, Frieda. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation (Temple University Press, 2nd Edition, 2011). ISBN 978-1-4399-0743-6
  • Johnson, Mary and The Ragged Edge Online Community. Disability Awareness - do it right! Your all-in-one how-to guide (The Advocado Press, 2006). ISBN 978-0-9721189-1-0
  • Johnson, Roberta Ann. "Mobilizing the Disabled.," in Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, edited by Jo Freeman (Longman, 1983), pp. 82-100; reprinted in Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties edited by Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), pp. 25-45. ISBN 978-0-8476-8748-0
  • Longmore, Paul, K. and Umansky, Laurie, editors, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York University Press, 2001). ISBN 978-0-8147-8564-5
  • O'Brien, Ruth. Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace (University Of Chicago Press, 2001). ISBN 978-0-226-61659-9
  • Pelka, Fred. The ABC Clio Companion to the Disability Rights Movement (ABC-Clio, 1997). ISBN 978-0-87436-834-5
  • Pelka, Fred. What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement (Amherst, Boston MA: University of Massachusetts Press 2012). ISBN 978-1-55849-919-5
  • The Regents of the University of California. The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Berkeley, 2001). Web. Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Document maintained on server: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ by The Bancroft Library. www.bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/drilm/aboutus/project.html
  • Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (Times Books, 1993). ISBN 978-0-8129-2412-1
  • Stroman, Duane. The Disability Rights Movement: From Deinstitutionalization to Self-Determination (University Press of America, 2003). ISBN 978-0-7618-2480-0


  1. ^ "International Disability Rights". Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Retrieved 2017.
  2. ^ Bell, Beverly (5 August 2014). "The Global Disability Rights Movement: Winning Power, Participation, and Access". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2017.
  3. ^ a b Alex Szele. "Abuse, Neglect and Patient Rights by the Disability Rights Wisconsin website". Disability Rights Wisconsin. Retrieved 2014.
  4. ^ a b c Bagenstos, Samuel (2009). Law and the Contradictions of the Disability Rights Movement. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12449-1.
  5. ^ a b "World Report on Disability" (PDF). WHO. 2011.
  6. ^ "Disability Poverty and Development" (PDF). DFID. 2000.
  7. ^ "Children with Disabilities" (PDF). UNICEF. 2013.
  8. ^ "Voices of the Marginalised". ADD International. 2014-2016.
  9. ^ "Accessible Elections for persons with disabilities in five Southeast Asian countries" (PDF). USAID. 2013.
  10. ^ Ju'beh, Al. "Disability Inclusive Development Toolkit" (PDF). 2015. CBM.
  11. ^ "ColorAdd®, o código de cores para daltónicos" (in Portuguese). Archived from the original on 10 March 2014. Retrieved 2013.
  12. ^ "The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movements." The Virginia Navigator, 23 Mar. 2013. Web.
  13. ^ "R-word - Spread the Word to End the Word". Retrieved 2014.
  14. ^ a b c d Barnartt and Scotch, Sharon N. and Richard (2001). Disability Protests: Contentious Politics 1970-1999. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. ISBN 978-1-56368-112-7.
  15. ^ a b Johnson, Roberta Ann (1999). Mobilizing the Disabled, in Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties, pp. 25-45. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-8476-8748-0.
  16. ^ a b c d Fleischer, Doris (2001). The Disability Rights Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-812-6.
  17. ^ Wynne-Jones, Ros (17 July 2013). "Bedroom tax protesters deliver letters on devastating effect on disabled people's lives". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 2013.
  18. ^ Limited life chances of disabled people in Britain revealed by damning report The Guardian
  19. ^ a b Frum, David (2001). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. pp. 250-251. ISBN 0-465-04195-7.
  20. ^ Shapiro, Joseph P. (1993). No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Times Books. ISBN 978-0-8129-2412-1.
  21. ^ Timothy J. Nugent Papers, 1939-2007 | University of Illinois Archives
  22. ^ http://www.drckansas.org/disability-awareness-project/HistoryofDisabilityRightsinKSandUS.pdf
  23. ^ a b "The Regents of the University of California. 2008. "The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement." Berkeley, CA: The University of California Berkeley". Retrieved 2014.
  24. ^ "Disability History Timeline". Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Independent Living Management. Temple University. 2002. Archived from the original on 2013-12-20.
  25. ^ "Concord Special Education Parent Advisory Committee website, article title Concord Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, Section 504". Retrieved 2014.
  26. ^ "Disability Social History Project, article title Famous (and not-so-famous) People with Disabilities". Retrieved 2014.
  27. ^ a b "The Inaugural International Disability Pride Parade Unified in Pride Sunday, July 18, 2004 Chicago, Illinois". www.disabilityprideparade.com. Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved 2013.
  28. ^ a b c "Disability Pride Fast Becoming Genuine Cause for Celebration". www.itodaynews.com. Retrieved 2013.
  29. ^ "The Disability Rights Movement". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2012.

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