The American Disabilities Rights Act: Breaking Barriers for Inclusion and Equality

We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. as an important figure for the Civil Rights Movement. He preached justice and equality for all people of different backgrounds. Because of his influence over the Civil Rights Movement, he inspired many people with disabilities to also stand up for their rights. “Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane,” King said in 1966.

Judy Heumann was born in Brooklyn, NY, and in 1949, she contracted polio when she was just 2-years-old. She started using a wheelchair at age five. However, she was not allowed to attend school because her wheelchair was considered a “fire hazard.” In her early years, Heumann’s parents fought for her right to an education, which inspired her to continue to fight for her rights and the rights of people with disabilities.

When she grew up, Heumann along with other people with disabilities decided to advocate for themselves. Inspired by King and the Civil Rights Movement, they protested for equal rights and inclusion for people with disabilities.

[A photo of Judy Heumann (left) and Stella Young (right). Heumann is an older woman with short wavy brown hair. She is wearing glasses and has a dark floral printed suit. She is holding hands with Young who is a younger woman with orange close cropped hair. Young is wearing a grey shirt. They are both smiling at the camera.]

They had many victories, most notably the American Disability Act in 1990 (ADA). This law prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in jobs, public places, businesses, transportation, telecommunication, and more. It also made new laws for public areas and buildings to be more accessible.

“If it weren’t for the Civil Rights Movement, the disability rights movement, and resulting civil rights protections for individuals with disabilities, would probably never have existed. The Civil Rights Movement inspired individuals with disabilities to fight against segregation and for full inclusion under the law. Public institutions would often segregate or exclude people with disabilities from participation in public education, employment, or in using public services, such as public transportation. They took their cues for how to advocate for themselves from Black civil rights activists, many of whom had disabilities themselves.” – Disability Rights Michigan

The Disability Rights Movement took cues from King and the Civil Rights Movement. People with disabilities, like Heumann, fought against inequality and advocated for inclusion. Public places would often keep them out of school, jobs, or using things like public transportation.

Have you seen those dips in the sidewalk? They were not always there to make crossing the street easier; someone had to advocate for them. People with disabilities across the United States protested by occupying federal buildings and sitting on the streets. They worked hard for accessibility for people with disabilities.

The ADA became a cornerstone of inclusion for people with disabilities, and in 1999, the Olmstead Act was also pivotal. The Supreme Court ruled that people with disabilities can live in a community and not be unnecessarily institutionalized.

With King’s influence and through the Civil Rights Movement, people with disabilities, like Judy Heumann, felt inspired to fight for their rights. Thanks to their bravery, people with disabilities can now work, go to school, and be part of a community. But there’s still more to do. Some people still unfairly see those with disabilities as less than others. Let’s speak up against this unfair thinking and learn about the special things that make us different.

Sources: Legal Defense Fund

American Civil Liberties Union