Disability, History, and Law, Part 1: Celebrating 30 Years of the ADA

My wheelchair ostensibly advertises my disability, so it is not “hidden.” I am paralyzed from the neck down. I cannot move my hands or feet. The wheelchair is bulkier than most chairs, and as an attorney, my chair is inexplicably drawn toward the toes of opposing counsel. It’s an odd coincidence, really.

Using a wheelchair attracts funny questions and stereotypes:

“Can you pop-a-wheelie?”


“How do you drive without your hands?”

Have you seen Stranger Things? It’s like that—mind over matter—without the Demogorgon.

“Do you know Billy Price? He uses a chair, too.”

Yes, I know Billy—not because of the chair, but because Billy is really, really popular. He has his own shoe line!

This stereotype, that everyone in a wheelchair knows everyone else with a disability, is one I wish were true. It’s not … but imagine if it were. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 61 million adults (about one in four Americans) in the United States live with a disability—that is a lot of Facebook friends! It’s a popular club, and its membership continues to increase in numbers.

The breadth and diversity of people with disabilities is prodigious. Disabilities transcend gender, age, and race. In addition to disabilities concerning mobility, there are disabilities that affect cognition, hearing, vision, and undisclosed disabilities that affect activities of daily living (yes, you can join the club secretly, too). People with disabilities announce their presence every once in a while, and it leads to truly remarkable accomplishments.

In one of the most well-known examples of rallying together, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) organized a sit-in for civil rights in April of 1977. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act had passed prohibiting discrimination in programs conducted by federal agencies against individuals with disabilities. However, more than three years after its enactment, the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had yet to be signed and implemented, which left the Rehabilitation Act unenforceable. Instead of being signed into law, the regulations were marked for review, and there were serious concerns the regulations would be watered down.

The ACCD staged a sit-in at offices of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare across the country, including offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle. People protested by sitting-in—quite visibly, loudly, and odiferously (imagine more than 150 protesters and 26 days without accessible bathrooms). After one of the greatest displays of solidarity against discrimination, the regulations were finally signed, unchanged on April 28, 1977.

There are other examples of people with disabilities coming together and showing up. The League of the Physically Handicapped organized in May of 1935 to protest discrimination by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA denied jobs to applicants with disabilities because their applications were stamped with a “PH,” which stood for “physically handicapped.” A decision to “sit-in” at WPA headquarters eventually led to the creation of 1,500 jobs for workers with disabilities.

In Washington state around the same time, concerned parents and friends of people with developmental disabilities[1] came together to form the Children’s Benevolent League in 1936. This League joined other local organizations and eventually became the Arc of the United States, a nationwide organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities. Since its inception, the organization has grown to establish hundreds of local chapters in states across the country as well as significant partnerships and a multimillion dollar budget—another remarkable accomplishment for a typically underestimated group.

After the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the leaders of the disability rights movement and their allies created an advisory body to give guidance to government entities, formerly known as the National Council of the Handicapped, now called the National Council on Disability (NCD). The NCD pushed for expansion of the Rehabilitation Act to cover public accommodations, which paved the way for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In spite of bipartisan support for the new legislation in late 1988 and early 1989, the ADA stalled in Congress for over a year, largely due to business interests’ lobbying efforts.

Disability rights activists came together to stage a protest affectionately known as the “Capitol Crawl.” Activists, many with physical disabilities, crawled up the hundred steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest. Leaving assistive devices such as crutches and wheelchairs at the bottom of the steps, activists made a memorable scene dragging their bodies up the steps by any means. Some historical accounts attribute the subsequent, expeditious approval of the ADA to the direct action of the activists.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the ADA. The passage of the ADA was a major milestone in the fight for civil rights of people with disabilities. People with disabilities banded together and forced Congress to pass legislation. The ADA allowed people with disabilities to enforce their civil rights within the public domain, and it undeniably opened opportunities for people with disabilities and started a new chapter in civil rights.