Civil and Disability Rights in the USA

A look at disability rights laws in the United States.

As we reach the end of 2020, it will be a good time to look back on the passage of civil and disability rights legislation in the United States. This blog will expand on my previous blogs over the past 2 years.

The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, 1964 was a momentous day for all people in the USA. That was the day that widespread discrimination against people based on their race, gender, national origin, and religion became outlawed. Discrimination against people with disabilities, a significant group—probably the largest minority group—however continued. How could such discrimination continue, one may ask. We will examine the background of civil and disability rights legislation in the United States before delving into the civil and disability rights legislations.

Early Civil Rights Legislations

The Declaration of Independence of 1776 proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” This is the declaration of independence that most Americans celebrate annually on July 4. Only superficial and cosmetic attempts were made to redress the rampant discrimination of people that were not white, male, Christian, or different for nearly 200 years. The first attempt might be the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which supposedly guaranteed equal rights under law for all people who lived in the United States. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. This amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States and prohibited states from denying any person the equal protection of the laws. The fourteenth amendment also prohibited the deprivation of life, liberty, or property to any person without the due process of law. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as passed in 1870 specifically granted African American men the right to vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and prohibited their exclusion from jury service. However, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were unconstitutional, especially with regard to inns, public conveyances, and places of public amusement. The Plessey v. Ferguson trial in Louisiana could be regarded as the start of the “Separate but Equal” era of segregation.

Mainly due to the social upheaval experienced by Americans due to the Great Depression of the 1930s, a number of Civil Rights enactments were put into place. Most notably the Social Security Act was enacted in 1935 to establish an income maintenance system that targeted those unable to work. This act included provisions furnishing medical and therapeutic services for crippled (sic) children and made permanent the vocational Rehabilitation program. Racial segregation and injustice continued unabated.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools—in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case—was unconstitutional. The 10 years that followed saw great strides for the African American civil rights movement culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Early Disability Legislation

One of the earliest disability legislations on the Federal level is most likely to be the grant of 23,000 acres of land in Alabama to what became known as the American School for the Deaf in 1817. The American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 resulted in disabled veterans seeking protection and rehabilitation assistance from the government. The invalid corps (a.k.a. Veteran Reserve Corps) was established in 1863. This allowed partially disabled or veteran soldiers to perform light duty to allow able-bodied soldiers to serve on the front lines.

The first world war produced a number of legislative acts by the U.S. Federal government which included:

1916 — The National Defense Act supported injured soldiers to receive instruction to facilitate their return to civilian life;

1917 — The Smith-Hughes Act established the Federal-State Program in vocational education which allowed for the vocational rehabilitation of disabled veterans;

1918 — The Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act allowed for vocational rehabilitation and support for the re-employment of disabled soldiers discharged from the U.S. military;

1920 — The Smith-Fess Act (referred to as the Civilian Rehabilitation Act) began the rehabilitation program for all Americans with disabilities patterned after the Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act.

Modern Civil Rights Legislation

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not the first, nor the last piece of civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. government. However, this piece of civil rights legislation might be the most monumental. After the passage of this act, a plethora of other Civil Rights legislation was passed in the years to come.

Modern Disability Rights Legislation

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its sections were passed. However, there was a caveat to the Rehabilitation Act as it covered only entities that received federal funding. Discrimination based on disability on the state and local levels continued. Even with the Rehabilitation Act in place, no enforceable regulations were issued between 1973 and 1977. This was when the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), a national cross disability organization, was formed to get regulations for the Rehabilitation Act in effect.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed to guarantee equal access to public education for children with disabilities. This act of legislation specified that every child had a right to education. It mandated the full inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education classes, unless a satisfactory level of education could not be achieved due to the nature of the child’s disability.

Another significant milestone was also achieved in 1975, when the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was founded. The ACCD was the first disability rights group that was created, governed and administered by disabled individuals. The formation of ACCD was significant in that it was the first national group that pulled together disability groups representing different populations of the disabled in the United States.

In the 1970s, self-advocacy groups, such as DREDF (Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund), ADAPT, originally an acronym for Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation and later changed to Americans Disabled Attendant Programs in 1990, and the CIL (Centers for Independent Living), helped to shape the national conversation around disability. The CIL provides services for people with disabilities in the community and was started in 1972 in Berkeley, California.

The National Council on Disability (formerly the National Council on the Handicapped) was originally established as a small advisory Council within the Department of Education. In 1978, NCD was transformed into an independent agency in 1984 and was charged with reviewing all federal disability programs and policies. The NCD issued their report, Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities - With Legislative Recommendations on February 1, 1986.

On January 29, 1988, the NCD sent in their follow-up report, On the Threshold of Independence. In this report, the NCD pledged to send in annual reports to the President and the Congress of the United States. Such reports would cover available data on health, housing, employment, insurance, transportation, recreation, and education, and appropriate information on the current status and trends in the status of individuals with disabilities.

Both the Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities - With Legislative Recommendations and the On the Threshold of Independence reports were significant in pushing the U.S. government to pass federal level legislation to end discrimination—on the basis of disability—on state and local levels.

People with disabilities continued to fight against discrimination on state and local levels. In March 1988, students at Gallaudet University shut down the school in protest against the selection of a non-Deaf president. Gallaudet University's charter was signed into Law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 8, 1864. That charter allowed Gallaudet College to provide post-secondary education for Deaf people. Gallaudet University is still the only university in the world specifically for Deaf people.

After Gallaudet University appointed Dr. Elizabeth Zinser—the sole non-Deaf candidate from the final pool of three candidates—for the position as Gallaudet University's 7th President, the student body erupted and protested this selection. At that time, in Gallaudet University's 124 years of existence, they never had a President who was Deaf. That protest was known as the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest.

Undoubtedly, influenced by the protests, on May 9, 1988, Senator Tom Harkin (D) from Iowa, brought forward the Americans with Disabilities bill to the senate floor. On September 7, 1989, Senator Harkin’s Americans with Disabilities Act (S. 933, Senate Report 101-116) bill was passed by a vote of 76 to 8. It is relevant to note here that Senator Harkin had a Deaf brother and Harkin witnessed his brother’s frustrations, especially with telecommunications, while growing up. That might be why Title IV of the ADA covers all aspects of telecommunications. The ADA Effective Communication requirement might have been influenced in some way by Senator Harkin.

So, in a way, Gallaudet University’s Deaf President Now movement might have given the ADA some impetus into becoming the law of the land that prohibits discrimination against anyone based on their disability. The ADA was finally signed into Law on July 26, 1990, a good 26 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and 17 years after the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It was about time that the “shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Additional Disability Rights Legislative Acts

Since the passage of the ADA in the 1990s, a number of wide- and far-reaching pieces of legislative acts were either passed or updated that had influence on Disability Rights, including but not limited to:

1. Workers Compensation (1916)

2. Social Security and Medicare (1935 updated several times)

3. Civil Rights Act (1964 updated 1987 and 1991)

4. Medicaid (1965 updated several times)

5. ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act) (1967)

6. Architectural Barriers Act (1968 and updated in 1999)

7. Fair Housing Act (1968 updated in 1988)

8. Voting Rights Act (1965 updated several times)

9. Rehabilitation Act (1973 updated 1993 and 1998)

10. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975 and updated several times)

11. Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (1984)

12. Air Carrier Access Act (1986)

13. Americans with Disabilities Act (1990 updated 2008)

14. National Voter Registration Act (1993)

15. FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) (1993)

16. Telecommunications Act (1996)

17. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) (1996)

18. Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (1997)

19. Workforce Investment Opportunity Act (1998 updated 2013)

20. TTW/WIIA (Ticket To Work/Work Incentives Improvements Act) (1999 updated 2017)

21. HAVA (Help America Vote Act) (2002)

22. GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act) (2008)

23. 21st Century Video Accessibility Act (2010)

24. ABLE Act (Achieving a Better Life Experience Act) (2014)

Sourced from Disability Legislation History: A Brief History of Legislation and Constitutional Amendments and Major Civil Rights Acts of Congress

Additional information was sourced from my previous blogs: