Historical Overview of Disability Policy

The paper was presented at The University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics on May 2, 2003 and was reprinted with permission of the author.

by Nancy Murray, President, The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh

Beginning with the colonization of America by the Pilgrims in the early 1600s and continuing for the next 300 years, people with disabilities were, for the most part, socially and physically isolated from people without disabilities. During the settling of the original colonies, people with disabilities who did not have the physical stamina to withstand the conditions of the day and were dependent on others were oftentimes forced to return to England. As colonial towns increased in size, almshouses for the poor, elderly and people with disabilities were built. Schools for the blind and deaf were established in the early 1800s. The first residential institution for people with mental retardation was founded in Boston in 1848. And in 1883, Sir Francis Galton in England is credited with enacting an early disability policy when he coined the term,”eugenics”. This led to laws being passed in the United States to prevent people with disabilities from marrying and having children. By the late 1930s, the majority of states had passed sterilization laws, and the practice continued to some extent into the 1970s by which time more than 60,000 people with disabilities had been sterilized without their consent.

In general, disability policy in early America was marked by people with disabilities being isolated from the rest of society and viewed as a class of dependent people who required segregation, protection and care.

Disability was made visible in American life primarily as an outcome of wars. Following the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress helped states to care for their disabled soldiers. The Civil War forced the nation, for the first time, to deal with large numbers of physically disabled citizens. Following each of the major wars of the 20th century, the U.S. Congress responded to the needs of returning veterans with rehabilitation legislation beginning with the Smith-Fess Rehabilitation Act in 1920. It was later amended in 1943 (after World War II), in 1954 (after the Korean War), and in 1965 (after the Vietnam War) to reflect changes in how people with disabilities were perceived and new treatment and rehabilitation protocols. Between 1935 and 1950, there were only a few pieces of legislation that targeted people with disabilities. In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed and established federal benefits for the elderly, the blind and children with disabilities. In 1950, the Social Security Amendments established a federal-state program to aid people who were permanently and totally disabled.

By and large, civilians with disabilities were largely invisible and unaccounted for by the federal government until the later half of the 20th century. Public attitudes began to change when the definition of disability shifted from a medical model/functional limitation model to a perspective that focused on environmental barriers that limit people with disabilities. In this shift in thinking, people with disabilities began to be seen as a group defined not by their disabilities but by circumstances that can be changed through legislation and political action.

Two movements changed disability policy in the years following World War II, the parents’ movement and the civil rights movement. In 1950, two major parent organizations were established, the Association for Retarded Children and the National Foundation for Cerebral Palsy. Due to medical advances, more children with disabilities were surviving and parents sought to keep them from being institutionalized and to get their children educated. To accomplish these goals, parents joined together for support and to begin to change policy and legislation.

Disability policy also has its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There were 3 major civil rights statutes during the 1960s that had a direct bearing on disability policy. First, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not cover people with disabilities; however, it set the stage for The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, especially Section 504, the first statutory definition of discrimination towards people with disabilities. The Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act, enacted in 1968 along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 set the stage for changes in disability policy.

In 1961, President Kennedy established the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation and in an address to Congress in 1963, called for deinstitutionalization and an increase in community services for people with mental retardation. The Kennedy Administration was a turning point in American disability policy. By 1965, Congress had established Medicare and Medicaid, Title 18 and 19, respectively of the Social Security Act. In 1968, The Architectural Barriers Act is passed, mandating that federally constructed buildings be accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Momentum was building and three important disability policies emerged during the 1970s,

  • Program accessibility In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act marked the greatest achievement of the disability rights movement, specifically Title V, Section 504, which prohibits programs receiving federal funds from discriminating against ‘otherwise qualified persons with disabilities’ and which introduced the concept of program accessibility.
  • Independent living During the 1970s, a social and political movement that emerged among people with disabilities and resulted in a proliferation of independent living centers, disability advocacy organizations and people with disabilities assuming roles in government. In 1972, the Center for Independent Living was founded in Berkeley, California and sparked the worldwide independent living movement.
  • Mainstreaming and later inclusion In 1972, 2 major court cases, Mills v. Board of Education and PARC v. Pennsylvania struck down state laws used to exclude children with disabilities from attending public schools. In 1975, Congress passed another cornerstone of federal disability rights legislation, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which established the right of children with disabilities to a public school education in an integrated or least restrictive environment.

However, there were also other extremely important pieces of legislation during the decade of the 1970s. In 1972, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was created to relieve families of the financial responsibility of caring for their adult children with disabilities. 1975, Congress passed the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act that provided federal funding and a "bill of rights" for people with disabilities and established the system of protection and advocacy organizations in each state.

In 1976, The White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals brought together more than 3,000 people to discuss federal disability policy for people with disabilities. This was the first gathering of this kind and it resulted in many pieces of legislation and served as a catalyst for grassroots disability rights organizing.

The pace of disability legislation and policy development quickened during the 1980s. In 1980, The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act was passed which authorized the U.S. Justice Department to file civil suits on behalf of residents of institutions whose rights are violated. A year later, the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981, authorized the Secretary of Health and Human Services to grant "home and community based waivers" to enable states to furnish personal assistance and other services to individuals who, without such services, would require institutional care.

In 1982, the Telecommunications for the Disabled Act mandated telephone access for deaf and hard-of-hearing people at public places such as hospitals and police stations.

In 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act was passed and required that registration and polling places for federal elections be accessible to persons with disabilities. Also, following the Baby Doe case in 1982, the Child Abuse Amendments of 1984 was passed and required that states enact procedures to respond to cases in which medical treatment is withheld from infants with disabilities. And in 1984, George Murray is the first athlete with a disability to be featured on the Wheaties cereal box.

In 1986, The Air Carrier Access Act was passed and prohibited airlines from refusing to serve people based on a disability and from charging them more than passengers without disabilities. Also, the Education for All Handicapped Children's act included a new grant program for states to develop early intervention systems. Between 1986 and 1988, there were amendments to the Rehabilitation Act and the Developmental Disabilities and Bill of Rights Act which strengthened and expanded these pieces of legislation.

In 1988, The Technology-Related Assistance Act, the "Tech Act" was passed which authorized federal funding for state projects designed to facilitate access to assistive technology and the Fair Housing Act Amendment added persons with disabilities as a protected group.

That takes us up to the White House Rose Garden and the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. Enactment of this landmark civil rights legislation struck a statutory and regulatory blow to discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodation and telecommunications. The ADA is still considered to be the most sweeping disability rights legislation in history. The ADA has a unique quality because, unlike other civil rights categories such as race and gender, any individual may become a member of the protected class at any moment in his or her life.

1990 also was the year that The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reauthorized the Education of the Handicapped Act and strengthened the act in the areas of transition and assistive technology.

Between 1990 and 1999, there were 20 reauthorizations and amendments to The Vocational Rehabilitation Act, IDEA, The Developmental Disabilities Act, The Omnibus Reconciliation Act, The National Affordable Housing Act, The Rehabilitation Act, The Voter Registration Act, The Civil Rights Act, and The "Tech" Act.

Marking the close of this decade and century, on June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Olmstead v. L.C. The Olmstead decision interpreted Title II of the ADA and its implementing regulation that obliges States to administer their services, programs and activities “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities”. In doing so, the Supreme Court answered the fundamental question of whether it is discrimination to deny people with disabilities services in the most integrated setting appropriate. The Court stated directly that “unjustified isolation…is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.” In the Courts’ decision, States are required to provide community-based services for persons with disabilities who would otherwise be entitled to institutional services, when (a) the State’s treatment professionals reasonably determine that such placement is appropriate; (b) the affected persons do not oppose such treatment; and (c) the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others who are receiving State-supported disability services.

1999 was also the year The Ticket to Work and The Work Incentives Improvement Act were passed which provides Social Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) beneficiaries with tickets that can be used to obtain vocational rehabilitation services.

On February 1, 2001, President Bush launched the New Freedom Initiative and charged federal agencies to assess their programs and policies relating to people with disabilities and to identify how they would support the objectives of the New Freedom Initiative to:

  • Increase access to assistive technologies,
  • Expand educational opportunities,
  • Promote increased access into the community, and
  • Increase access to employment.

In his Fiscal Year 2004 Budget, President Bush presented multiple proposals to be included as part of The New Freedom Initiative:

  • The “Money Follows the Individual” Rebalancing Demonstration that would assist states by financing Medicaid services for people who move from costly nursing homes and institutions to homes in communities.
  • New Freedom Initiative Demonstrations that would provide respite care services for caregivers of adults with disabilities or long-term illness.

In summary, the history of America’s policy impacting people with disabilities has been a long and winding road, moving from isolation and segregation to inclusion and empowerment.


Nancy Murray is the President of ACHIEVA, formerly The ARC of Greater Pittsburgh.It is a member of the ACHIEVA Family of Corporations. She has 25 years experience in the not-for-profit sector as a volunteer, board member, supports coordinator and executive in organizations serving people with disabilities and their families. She has conducted hundreds of seminars and has written numerous articles for families and professionals on disability issues. she can be reached at nmurray@achieva.info or (412) 995-5000 x414.

You can communicate with Nancy on this topic or go to the WheelchairNet Discussion area and join in a discussion with others.

Last Updated: 3-2-2006

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