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Disability rights movement

The disability rights movement aims to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. For people with physical disabilities accessibility and safety are primary issues that this movement works to reform. Access to public areas such as city streets and public buildings and restrooms are some of the more visible changes brought about in recent decades. A noticeable change in some parts of the world is the installation of elevators, transit lifts, wheelchair ramps and curb cuts, allowing people in wheelchairs and with other mobility impairments to use public sidewalks and public transit more easily and more safely. These improvements have also been appreciated by parents pushing strollers or carts, bicycle users, and travelers with rolling luggage.

Access to education and employment have also been a major focus of this 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.

The right to have an independent life as an adult, sometimes using paid assistant care instead of being institutionalized, is a major goal of this movement, and is the main goal of the similar independent living and self-advocacy movements, which are more 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.


In the United States, the disability rights movement became a significant force in the 1970s, encouraged by the examples of the African-American civil rights and women’s rights movements, which began in the late 1960s. One of the most important developments was the growth of the Independent Living movement which emerged in California. Another crucial turning point was the nationwide sit-in conceived by Frank Bowe and organized by the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in 1977 of government buildings operated by HEW in San Francisco and Washington DC that successfully led to the release of regulations pursuant to Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. 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.

In the UK, following extensive activism by disabled people over several decades, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA 1995) was passed. This makes it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transport. It is a civil rights law. Other countries use constitutional, social rights or criminal law to make similar provisions. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides support for the Act. Equivalent legislation exists in Northern Ireland, which is enforced by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.

Physical disabilities

The focus of activists for the rights of people with physical disabilities began with access to public and private buildings and general accommodation of people who are less mobile or dextrous. In particular, they advocate the inclusion of wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, wide doors and corridors, and the elimination of unnecessary steps where ramps and elevators are not available.

While physical access remains an ongoing need,in the United States, other needs were raised and became elements in the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 such as employment and transportation.

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. 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.


  • Ed Roberts is often referred to as the father of the disability right movements. His efforts to get into college succeeded in his admission to UC Berkeley in 1962. His fight for access at Berkeley spread into seeking access in the community and the development of the first Center for Independent Living.
  • Judith Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts, and served as its co-director from 1983 to 1993. She is now the World Bank Group's advisor on disability and development.
  • John Tyler was an advocate for the rights of the disabled who was himself disabled with severe polio. He parked his wheelchair in front of Metro buses in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. in the late 1970s and performed other actions to make sure that the proper wheelchair lifts, not the "folding camel" lifts, would be put onto the public transit buses. The original lifts could potentially dump people in wheelchairs, and also break down more easily. After his death from suicide on December 24, 1984, he was remembered at Center Park in Seattle, Washington, the first apartment building built in the United States specifically for people in wheelchairs.
  • Jeff Moyer is an important and unique musician to the Disability Rights Movement. He began his work as the resident musician of the 504 protests in San Francisco, circa 1977.
  • Gabriela Brimmer, a poet whose life was chronicled in the film Gaby -- A True Story, overcame cerebral palsy to form a disability rights organization in her native Mexico.



  • Roberta Ann Johnson, "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.
  • Paul K. Longmore and Laurie Umansky, editors, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York Univ. Press, 2001).
  • Fred Pelka, The ABC Clio Companion to the Disability Rights Movement (ABC-Clio, 1997).
  • Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (Times Books, 1993). ISBN 0-8129-2412-6

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