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The History of Disabled People

Updated: Apr 4

by Jessica Lopez (edited by Eric Prince)

The Disability Pride flag. A black background with blue, yellow, white, red, and green stripes going diagonally at a 135 degree angle.

One in seven people on Earth are disabled in some way (that’s one billion people worldwide).

7 stick figure drawings with blue heads. One of them a person in a wheelchair.

In the United States, one in five people are disabled (that's 60 million people in the US).

5 stick figure drawings with blue-colored heads. One of them is a person in a wheelchair.

Now, you may be wondering to yourself – how is ‘disability’ defined?

Disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that impairs someone's ability to do certain activities.

A disability can be clearly noticeable, like someone who doesn't have hands and feet.

But a disability can also be invisible, like someone with an intellectual disability (for example, Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Obviously, disabilities aren’t a new issue - people have lived with disabilities for all of human history. But, as a culture, we’ve only recently begun to address the needs of people with disabilities. For most of human history, disabled people have, at best, been overlooked, and, at worst, been outright persecuted.

Unfortunately, this history is often just as overlooked. We don't learn about the injustices disabled people have faced throughout history, we don't learn about the groundbreaking activism that changed how we view disability, we don't learn about the social attitudes that can lead to disability discrimination, and we don't learn how disability rights affect everyone.

So, today, we’re going to take a deep look at the history of disabled people.


A Brief History of Disability

Up until the 1800s, disabled people were often considered demonic or cursed.

A painting of 5 beggars, all of whom are on the ground with crutches.
Pieter Bruegel, The Beggars (The Cripples), 1568

Because of these views, disabled people were often a source of embarrassment for families. They didn't know how to care for their disabled family members and, many times, they couldn't afford to care for them (sometimes they just didn't want to). As a result, many disabled people were hidden away from the sight of others or kicked out of the home altogether.

The mid-1800s saw the age of industrialization, an era well-known for its horrible working conditions. There wasn’t much protection for ANYONE, let alone for disabled people.

4 black and white photos of factory workers. Photo 1 has 2 children working a loom. Photos 2 and 3 show 6 people wearing torn clothing working on pipes. Photo 4 shows men, women, and children sorting items in large bins.
Factory working conditions were very poor in general.

Unfortunately, disabled people were hit the hardest. Many were unable to work in manufacturing positions due to their disabilities. And unfortunately, there weren’t many other options out there. So, disabled people often resorted to panhandling on the street to survive.

A magazine cartoon showing beggars panhandling businessmen. In the corner is a drawing of a person speaking to the mayor.
"The Streets of New York - Running the Gauntlet of Horrors" (1879). Caption: 'If you can't remove these people from the street on the score of Charity, do it for Decency's sake'.

This made a lot of non-disabled people resentful. They often felt these panhandling disabled people were lazy, and that they were scamming hard-working people out of their money. A prevalent view arose during this time that disabled people just didn't want to contribute to society (and, unfortunately, this ideology persists today).

In response, cities began 'warning out' people with disabilities. This emerged from the concept that a city had the responsibility to care for its citizens, and if a city didn't want to take responsibility for someone, they had the right to send them away.

'Warning out' disabled people could be done with a city notice saying that a person is not welcome in town, or by 'passing on' a person by loading them into a cart and dropping them off in the next town. Displacement and the jailing of people with disabilities were both extremely common at this time.



But these "solutions" weren’t effective. They were also largely unpopular with socially progressive people. So, an alternative solution was created: Institutionalization.

Institutionalization gained traction by providing disabled people rehabilitation so that, one day, they might be able to assimilate back into regular society (it also provided them a place to live).

Dorothea Dix was a notable figure at this time. During the mid-19th century, Dix created the first generation of state institutions for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health conditions.

A black and white depiction of Dorothea Dix who is a white woman with black hair in a bun. She is wearing a black blouse with a white undershirt.
Dorothea Dix

This was a turning point in American history. People began to support the idea that the government has a specific responsibility to care for vulnerable or disabled people. The era of social reform had arrived.

Because of Dix's lobbying, the government began to fund state institutions. However, the institutions weren’t without their own set of issues.

Inside these institutions, disabled people often faced extremely poor living conditions and experienced high rates of abuse & neglect.

4 black and white photos. Photo 1: Men in an institution wearing overalls and sleeping in chairs. Photo 2: 7 toddlers in a small, white crib in an institution. Photo 3: Multiple people sharing bedframes. There is a person in a wheelchair in the background. Photo 4: A person sitting on a bench and multiple other people on the floor beside them.
The Willowbrook Institute on Staten Island, New York (in operation from 1947 to 1987)

These institutions often had questionable and cruel methods of rehabilitating people. These methods ranged from shock therapy and dangerous experimental drugs to methods of negative reinforcement that usually resembled torture.

A major issue of institutionalization was the imposed isolation that often came with it. Many people in these institutions reported high levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety (institutions today still struggle with these issues).

Another major issue was the lack of choice for disabled people. Many families viewed institutionalization as the best (or only) option for their disabled family member. However, disabled people were often left out of this decision-making process and were taken to institutions against their will.

Institutionalization created an atmosphere where families and doctors struggled to recognize the autonomy of disabled people, and, oftentimes, the preferences, beliefs, opinions, and personal autonomy of disabled people were ignored.

Because of this cultural mindset, institutionalization became a widely-adopted practice. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of disabled people were segregated away from society in these institutions (a practice known as 'warehousing').

However, life outside these institutions wasn't much better. Many disabled people remained in a society that didn't accept them, and, for these people, a new response was forming.


The “Ugly Laws”

In the late-1800s and early 1900s, a new set of laws became popular. They came to be known as 'ugly laws'.

These 'ugly laws' banned 'unsightly' people from being seen in public places. And if you were a disabled person resembling an 'unsightly or disgusting object' you could be legally denied service, fined up to $50 (that's over $1,300 today), or even arrested.

Black and white photo of 2 policemen with arms through the arms of an elderly man with crutches.
The "Ugly Laws".

The laws kept many disabled people from going out for necessities and emergencies. Ugly laws were originally meant to keep beggars out of communities. However, in later decades they were used to deny disabled people services and keep them out of sight.

Sadly, these 'ugly laws' aren’t an ancient piece of American history - many of these laws existed in various forms until the 1970s.


Eugenics: The Era of Science Nobody Likes to Discuss

Unfortunately, "ugly laws" aren't the most egregious reaction to disabled people in the 20th century. That award goes to Eugenics, and in the early 1900s, the Eugenics belief system was spreading among intellectual groups around the world.

Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger.
A few notable people who voiced support for Eugenics.

Eugenics took Darwin’s theory of evolution and morphed it into something truly and utterly disgusting. The fundamental tenet of Eugenics is the belief that certain people are inherently inferior due to certain undesirable genetic traits, and that in order to create a more successful species, these inferior people had to be eliminated from the human genome.

The practice of Eugenics caught on more than any of us care to admit, and the sterilization of disabled people happened all over the United States. Even the Supreme Court allowed it to happen. In 1927, the US Supreme Court passed a ruling stating that governments had the right (even the social responsibility) to forcibly sterilize anyone with a disability.

Over 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized without their consent in the US. The ruling responsible for this, known as Buck v. Bell has never been overturned (though it is now limited in certain cases).

9 Supreme Court Justices wearing their black judicial gowns.
The Supreme Court responsible for Buck v. Bell, which is often considered the worst ruling the Supreme Court has ever made.

The theory of Eugenics changed the way many people viewed disabled people within American society, and one of the most powerful ways Eugenics succeeded was by tying its belief system to a sympathetic moral anchor.

For example, many parents rejected food or life-saving treatment for their disabled children because they believed it would be better for their children to die than to live what they saw as a 'poor quality' of life. In their eyes, they were doing their child a favor.

Even medical doctors internalized the Eugenics belief-system. The most common response was to simply deny treatment or healthcare to disabled people.

4 black and white photos. Photo 1: Multiple people standing outside a building with a sign that says "Eugenics Building." Photo 2: Men protesting with signs that say: "I am a burden to myself and the state. Should I be allowed to propagate?" and "I must drink alcohol to sustain life. Shall I transfer the craving to others?" and "Would the prisons and asylums be filled with my kind if I had no children?" and "I cannot read this sign. By what right have I children?" Photo 3 shows multiple signs posted to a wall that say: "This light flashes every 15 seconds. Every 15 seconds 100 of your money goes to the cases of persons with bad heredity such as the insane feebleminded, criminals, and other defectives." And "Every 15 seconds someone is born in the United States." And "Every 7 and a half minutes a high grade person is born in the United States who will have ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership. About 4% of all Americans come within this class." In the center of these signs is text on the wall that says "Some people are born to be a burden on the rest." Photo 4: A team of doctors and nurses in front of a patient lying on a gurney.
The world of Eugenics.

A now famous case involves Harry Haiselden, a Chief Surgeon at a hospital in Chicago, who refused to perform life-saving surgeries for several children born with severe birth defects. Instead, he allowed them to die.

In fact, Haiselden himself wrote and starred in a film about his beliefs (The Black Stork, 1917). In the film, he portrayed his actions as merciful and sympathetic.

3 photos. Photo 1: A scene from the Black Stork with Dr. Haiselden with a patient with Down's Syndrome. Photo 2: A headline about Dr. Haiselden and the case. Photo 3: A scene from the Black Stork with a nurse and a thin baby on a blanket.
The Black Stork, written and starring Haiselden himself (1917).

Even when doctors did not directly practice Eugenics, social standards often influenced their decision-making process.

Many times, a doctor could independently assess someone's 'quality of life'. If two people were in the emergency room - one non-disabled and the other disabled - a doctor might often choose to attend to the non-disabled person first.

Doctors also began to feel that using extended resources on a severely disabled person was 'futile'. This concept is known as 'medical futility', and it still exists today.

The worst instances of the Eugenics belief system led to the murder of thousands of people.

One of the most notable examples is the Nazi Germany program called Aktion T4, which oversaw the involuntary euthanasia (aka murder) of 300,000 disabled people in hospitals and mental institutions. Nazi officials hired doctors to carry out 'mercy killings' of people deemed to be incurable of certain disabilities.

2 black and white photos. Photo 1: Children sitting on a bench wearing gowns outside an institution. Photo 2: 4 boys on a bench, one of whom has Down's Syndrome.
Aktion T4 in action.

At first, these doctors began with disabled children, allowing them to starve to death under the care of the hospital system. Soon, however, disabled people of all ages were killed, either through starvation or more direct & active methods (like poisoning and gassing).

2 black and white photos. Photo 1: Multiple cribs being used as cages for children. One boy is around 7 with a shaven head and is screaming in terror. Photo 2: A large crowd surrounding a bus with institutionalized children.
Aktion T4 in action.

They killed so many disabled people that they built chimneys next to hospitals to burn all the bodies.

A white hospital on the left with a black building attached to it on the right. On the roof of the black building is a large chimney with ashes coming out the top.
The chimneys at Hadamar Euthanasia Centre

The Aktion T4 program was "officially" suspended after religious groups protested. However, the Nazis continued the program in secret until 1945.


Disability in the Modern Era

The 1960s in America brought a lot of social turmoil: civil unrest, protests, and the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War was a nightmare for most people, but it was particularly damaging to the disabled community. The U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert McNamara, created a program known as Project 100,000. This program had a goal of drafting 100,000 intellectually and physically disabled people to use as expendable manpower.

Robert McNamara, who is a white man wearing glasses and a white shirt and pants walking with soldiers wearing hard hats and camouflage uniforms. One man is holding a mic to him from behind.
Robert McNamara with Vietnam War soldiers

The U.S. falsely marketed the program as a great skill-building opportunity for people with disabilities. Under the program, people with disabilities had a separate mark on their files identifying them as disabled. They were 3 times more likely to die in combat.

4 soldiers in Vietnam (1 white, 2 black) with arms linked over each other's shoulders, a few of them are injured.

But the 1960s also brought about an era of social change. People began to recognize the flaws of "the system": the oppression of minorities, the legal inequalities, and the cultural issues that were widely accepted & adopted without question.

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 surrounded by Martin Luther King Jr and multiple other men behind his desk.
The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it protected against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But it didn’t protect against discrimination based on disability. And despite attempts to be included in the bill, disabled people were again left out of the conversation.

This exclusion spurred disability rights activists to push for laws that directly addressed disability rights.

Section 504, passed in 1973, was one of the first pieces of legislation to provide disability rights. It was written as a law meant to curb disability discrimination in federally-funded programs. But it took a long time to be implemented.

2 black and white photos. Photo 1: Dozens of protestors in wheelchairs in front of the Capitol Building. One woman has a sign behind her wheelchair that says "We shall overcome." Photo 2: Multiple protestors in front of the White House. 2 of them are in wheelchairs holding a sign that says, "Sign 504 regs now."
Section 504 protests.

After four years of waiting for Section 504’s implementation, disability rights activists organized sit-ins at eight federal buildings across the country. One of these was held at the San Francisco federal building where (beginning on April 4, 1977) 150 disabled protesters held the longest civilian occupation of a federal building in US history, at 25 days. Section 504 was implemented on April 28, 1977.

3 black and white photos. Photo 1: A large crowd of disabled people in a federal building. Many of them are in wheelchairs and there is a cameraman in the middle of them. Photo 2: A disabled person sleeping on steps inside a federal building. Their wheelchair is beside them and they have a blanket. Photo 3: Multiple disabled people looking out the window of a federal building at a crowd on the other side of the glass.
The Section 504 sit-in is the longest civilian occupation of a federal building in US history.

Despite this win, there was still a lot of work to do.

Decades of activism followed. One such demonstration saw disabled activists laying themselves in the streets to protest the unlawful implementation of inaccessible public transportation vehicles.

2 black and white photos. Photo 1: 5 men in wheelchairs with sticks and a sign that says, "We demand curbs." Photo 2: Disabled people out of their wheelchairs lying on the pavement in front of a city bus.
Denver Public Transportation Protests

In the 1980s, disability rights champions often focused their attention toward grassroots activism. Disabled people organized to effect change in local and state public transportation, schools, and public services. One week-long student protest at a deaf university led to the appointment of their first deaf university president.

At the same time, other disability activists were fighting for change on a national level. They lobbied for laws to protect against specific forms of disability discrimination. Some of these laws included the Air Carrier Access Act which prohibited airlines from discriminating against disabled people, and the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act which requires voting accommodations during elections.

However, these laws only addressed specific instances of disability discrimination, and activists began to lobby for a comprehensive civil rights law.


The Americans with Disabilities Act

All of this activism eventually led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA limited disability discrimination in many areas of life: specific building requirements (like ramps and doorway width), public infrastructure (like sidewalk curb cuts), job requirements (equal opportunities), public transportation (accessibility), fair medical treatment, and freedom to exercise these rights without retaliation.

4 photos. Photo 1: A ramp. Photo 2: An LED sign of the International Wheelchair Symbol with an arrow pointing to it. Photo 3: A wheelchair lift on a bus with a woman on it. Photo 4: An automatic sliding door.
Examples of ADA implementations.

Modeled after the Civil Rights Act to be a sweeping civil rights law for disabled people, the ADA was introduced to the Senate floor in 1988. But it wasn’t easy to pass.

Two years of negotiations, lobbying, and delays followed. The biggest hurdle were the many businesses that lobbied against the law because they didn't like its accessibility requirements.

But disability rights advocates kept fighting to pass the bill. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in Congress in 1990.

This stall was the final straw for many disability rights activists, and it led to a series of protests in Washington DC in support of the ADA. Over 1000 disabled people showed up to these protests which went on for several days.

In one of the protests known as the Capitol Crawl, dozens of disabled people shed their wheelchairs and crutches to pull their bodies up all of the steps of the Capitol Building. At least 108 disabled protestors were arrested, many of whom were in wheelchairs.

4 photos of disabled people out of their wheelchairs and climbing the steps of the Capitol Building.
The Capitol Crawl, 1990.

The ADA was passed a few months later.


Why Should I Care About The ADA?

At this point, you might be wondering, "Why should this matter to me? I’m not disabled!".

Well, disability rights affect everyone in one way or another. The ADA didn't just accommodate disabled people, it provided structures that everyone can benefit from. While many of these are conveniences for non-disabled people, they are essential for people with disabilities.

Here are some of the things the ADA created (count how many you use on a daily basis):

Blue heading "What did the ADA accomplish?" Blue text underneath "Ramps and curb cuts (if you don't use a wheelchair you might use these for carts or strollers). Elevators in new buildings (businesses fought hard against this). Automatic doors (meant for people who can't push or pull doors). Grab bars and rails (you can find these in the bathroom!) Large public bathroom stalls (everybody uses these). LED signs in public transportation areas (loudspeakers were previously used). Captions on TV and streaming services (they weren't mandatory until the ADA).

However, the law fails disabled people in other ways.


The Failures of the ADA

Though the ADA outlaws job discrimination in various areas of employment (hiring, accommodations, job benefits, and pay), it still doesn't prevent disabled people from being paid well below federal minimum wage if they're considered less productive in their jobs.