Photo by Tom Olin

A transformative advance in the recognition and realization of human rights burst forth in the U.S. in the early 1970’s when disability advocates began using the legal system to challenge striking, blatant injustices to people with disabilities. Their heroic efforts led to unprecedented victories and spawned what came to be known as the Disability Rights Movement. While Robert Burgdorf was in law school in 1971, a chance conversation prompted him to try to start a student advocacy project relating to residents of mental hospitals. A chain of circumstances led to his becoming involved in founding a new agency named the National Center for Law and the Handicapped (NCLH) – the first national advocacy center for disability rights.

The stars of this era were the amazing individuals with disabilities, parents, attorneys, judges, disability organizations, educators and disability professionals, journalists, sympathetic government officials, civil rights leaders, and many others who forged a movement bent on challenging and eliminating discrimination on the basis of disability. They jealously pursued the goal of equality and justice for people with disabilities in the courts, state and federal legislatures, media, and at times in the streets. Such efforts yielded considerable consciousness-raising, inspired protests and demonstrations, produced a spate of favorable court decisions, and prompted the enactment of many state and federal laws which ultimately led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The origins of the disability rights movement can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the atrocious status of people with disabilities in our society before the movement’s inception. A condensed overview of the prejudice and discrimination faced by those having a condition  viewed as a disability as of the beginning of the 1970s will be presented. Problem areas were widespread, including public education, transportation, housing, access to buildings and facilities, confinement in inhumane and unsafe residential treatment facilities, involuntary sterilizations, access to the courts, denial of medical treatment, event the right to travel on public streets and sidewalks, and many others. 

You can read about the development of these disability laws in a website including the supreme court battles to uphold the right of a blind teacher to teach in public schools; the story of a person with MS, who challenged job discrimination; the story of a young woman with severe physical disabilities who won the right to an education in public schools; the right for people with disabilities to make medical decisions on their own behalf; and an influential article about the forced sterilization of individuals with disabilities. It is these personal stories that created the ADA that we know today. One fight at a time. 

So if you don’t know where your civil rights originated from, and you recognize there is still more fighting needed, check out for all the information. And a fully accessible website.



For more information about the ADA contact:

Dana Gover, MPA, and ACTCP Certification, ADA Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator 

For more information about ADA Technical Assistance visit the NW ADA Center Idaho website:
Phone: Voice and Text 208-841-9422
Idaho Relay Service: 7