The disability rights movement began in the 1960s, encouraged by the examples of the African-American civil rights and women’s rights movements.
It was at this time that disability rights advocacy began to have a cross-disability focus. People with different kinds of disabilities (physical and mental handicaps, along with visual- and hearing-impairments) and different essential needs came together to fight for a common cause. In 1948 a movement started to first prove that there were physical barriers for the handicap in public places and also research ways to modify these areas to provide access. This process continued over 40 years.
One of the most important developments of the disability rights movement was the growth of the independent living movement, which emerged in California in the 1960s through the efforts of Edward Roberts and other wheelchair-using individuals. This movement says that people with disabilities are the best experts on their needs, and therefore they must take the initiative, individually and collectively, in designing and promoting better solutions and must organize themselves for political power.
Ed Roberts (1939-1995) is often called the father of the disability rights movement. He contracted polio at the age of fourteen in 1953, two years before the Salk vaccine put an end to the epidemic. He spent eighteen months in hospitals and returned home paralyzed from the neck down except for two fingers on one hand and several toes. He slept in an iron lung at night and often rested there during the day. He attended school by telephone hook-up until his mother Zona insisted that he go to school once a week for a few hours. At school he faced his deep fear of being stared at and transformed his sense of personal identity. He gave up thinking of himself as a "helpless cripple," and decided to think of himself as a "star." He credited his mother with teaching him by example how to fight for what he needed.
He went on to become an international leader and educator in the independent living and disability rights movements. He fought throughout his life to enable all persons with disabilities to fully participate in society. Ed was a true pioneer: he was the first student with significant disabilities to attend UC Berkeley. He was a founder of UC’s Physically Disabled Students Program, which became the model for Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living (CIL) and over 400 independent living centers across the country. He was one of the early directors of CIL. He was the first California State Director of Rehabilitation with a disability; he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship; and he was co–founder and President of the World Institute on Disability.
In 1973 the (American) Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination in federal programs and services and all other programs or services receiving federal funds. This was the first civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
In 1983, Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) was responsible for another civil disobedience campaign also in Denver that lasted seven years. They targeted the American Public Transport Association in protest of inaccessible public transportation; this campaign ended in 1990 when bus lifts for people using wheelchairs were required nationwide by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and it provided comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Closely modeled after the Civil Rights Act and Section 504, the law was the most sweeping disability rights legislation in American history. It orders that local, state, and federal governments and programs be accessible, that employers with more than 15 employees make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities and not discriminate against otherwise qualified workers with disabilities, and that public places such as restaurants and stores not discriminate against people with disabilities and that they make “reasonable modifications” to ensure access for disabled members of the public. The act also ordered access in public transportation, communication, and in other areas of public life.