Celebrating Disability Pride Month and the History of the ADA

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In the United States, July marks Disability Pride Month — a “chance to honor each person’s uniqueness as ‘a natural and beautiful part of human diversity” — during which millions of people across America honor and bring awareness to disability rights. The month was established after the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, on July 26, 1990.

People with disabilities began celebrating the passing of this law, which prohibits discrimination against individuals based on their ability levels, with citywide celebrations and parades aimed at increasing visibility. What began as a simple day of marches to celebrate this momentous bill has grown into an entire month of events in the more than 30 years since President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law.

Disability Pride Month also celebrates the history and culture of people living with disabilities in the U.S. Parades and unique events help to educate and promote acceptance and inclusion within various communities. But it isn’t just about celebrating, and disability pride wasn’t always celebrated throughout American history. Countless activists sparked the push for changes in perception and legislation that this important month marks, too.

Discrimination Against People With Disabilities Was Common in Early American History

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Before we look at this important month, we need to examine the history behind the need for disability rights. Since colonial times, individuals born with disabilities, and people who developed disabilities later in life, were often hidden from the public, mistreated or disowned by family members or caregivers. In the 1800s and 1900s, individuals with disabilities were often forced into overcrowded, unsanitary and unregulated “poor houses” on farms by relatives who were unable to afford care. The marginalization of people with disabilities continued as society modernized; they were segregated in institutions in an effort to keep them “invisible and hidden from a fearful and biased society.”

In the 1900s, large numbers of military veterans returned from World War I, having become disabled during combat. Society was industrializing, too, which resulted in factory and other accidents leaving people living with disabilities. While work and recreational programs were established to help, these programs weren’t inclusive, leaving many people born with disabilities at the mercy of underfunded, state-run hospitals that subjected them to cruel experimentation and widespread mistreatment. People were helped not based on their true needs but rather based on discriminatory standards.

The Disability Community Begins Taking a Stand for Civil Rights

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Much like the Civil Rights Movement that began in the mid 1950s, the Disability Rights Movement also began coalescing in the 1960s. Americans with disabilities joined together as a community to publicly call out injustices they faced, from inaccessible buildings and transportation to unemployment and lack of education opportunities. People with disabilities historically were kept from opportunities due to societal barriers and prejudices. The community held sit-ins in federal buildings, obstructed the paths of inaccessible buses and marched to call attention to the discrimination they dealt with every day, and they demanded change at local and national levels in the protections (or lack thereof at the time) afforded to people with disabilities.

These visible protests gained the attention of the public and Congress. Between the 1970s and 1980s, policies were put in place to help provide equal opportunities to people regardless of their ability status. For example, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established more programs for new jobs and independent living for people with disabilities, along with affirmative action in the hiring of people with disabilities by federal agencies. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1974 mandated an end to separate and unequal educational opportunities by requiring that all children with disabilities receive a free public education. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that a law would officially prohibit discrimination against the disability community.

The Americans With Disabilities Act Is Signed Into Law

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The Americans With Disabilities Act is considered “one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.” The act bans discrimination against people with disabilities regarding their access to employment opportunities, public accommodations, public services, transportation and telecommunications. However, it took several years for this act to be signed into law. The first draft of the act was introduced by the National Council on Disability in 1988, but it went through several drafts, revisions and amendments over the course of a few years before the final version became law.

During that time, a national campaign encouraged people with disabilities to write about their experiences with discrimination. These “diaries” served as testimonials throughout hearings on the proposed act and highlighted the real marginalization that members of the disability community faced regularly.

As the bill lagged in Congress, protestors staged the “Capital Crawl” in which hundreds of participants abandoned their mobility aids and began to climb and crawl up the steps to the U.S. Capitol entrance, both to illustrate their struggles and to “force Congress to see them.” Coupled with in-person testimonies brought to the Congress floor, politicians and then-President George H.W. Bush saw the injustices the disability community continually faced. After years of fighting for disability rights, the ADA was officially signed into law on July 26, 1990.

Congress Later Had to Give a Clear Definition of “Disability”

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After the passing of the ADA, a variety of discrimination lawsuits arose, many of which were heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. The definition of “disability” in the original ADA was broad, leaving it open to interpretation. In the 1999 case Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., two sisters sued United Airlines for not hiring them as pilots because they didn’t meet vision standards, using the ADA for support. However, the Supreme Court ruled that they couldn’t claim discrimination under the ADA because their correctable vision impairments didn’t constitute a disability.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) was enacted on September 25, 2008, and became effective on January 1, 2009. With the ADAAA, disability was more clearly defined as a legal term. Under the law, a person with a disability is one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Disability Pride Month Takes Shape for Celebration and Awareness

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The disability community in America celebrates Disability Pride each July to coincide with the passing of the ADA. It started out as a one-day celebration — the first Disability Pride Day was held in Boston in 1990, and in 2004, the first U.S. Disability Pride Parade was held in Chicago. Since 1990, parades, marches and other events have begun occurring regularly in cities across the country. In 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared July Disability Pride Month in celebration of the ADA’s 25th anniversary.

Thanks to the efforts of members of the disability community, July has become a month of activities, lectures and festivals to celebrate and protect the rights of people with disabilities. But more than that, it’s a time, blogger Jessica Ping-Wild told USA Today, for people with disabilities “to declare their inherent self-worth…to come together, uplift, and amplify one another” while commemorating the indispensable efforts of disability activists from decades past. It’s also a time to make renewed calls for justice in the ongoing fight for improved representation and recognition of the disability community — and to continue making important changes for the future of disability rights.