Have you ever thought what it is meant by “normal” functioning of a body? How you ever considered yourself to be in a privileged group because you are an able-bodied person? How you paid attention to a stereotypical representation of disabled people in the media? How often have you seen disabled actors assigned to the roles of people with disability in movies? Have you ever treated people with disabilities negatively as inferior? All the factors mentioned above influence us both consciously and unconsciously in the way we define and shape the concept of disability, create an image of a “normal” functioning of the body, and relocate members of society in a hierarchy in terms of disability. Then it becomes very much clear that disability is not only a categorization of people by the functional and biological limitations of their bodies and minds but also a social categorization of those functional limitations in relation to the standards of “ideal” (healthy, non-disabled, young and often male) bodies (Wendell 2016 p.42).
Social construction of disability has in turn led a disabled people to unify under the disability rights movements in order to promote prejudicial attitudes and exclusionary practices as great barriers to societal participation (Scotch 1989 p.380) and to fight for an equal access, opportunity and consideration, basic human respect and dignity for those born with mental or physical disability (Scotch 2009 p.17). In this paper, I am going to investigate the causes and outcomes of disability rights movement focusing on the example of United States by elaborating on its history and expected future.
Before introducing the brief history and key events of disability rights movement, I found it important to identify the causes of the movement first. Here I am going to divide the causes into two main categories. Beginning with an individual level, people with disability are discriminated, stigmatized and stereotyped as a dependent, asexual, morally depraved and tragic pitiful by the non-disabled members of society (Wendell 2016 p.43). As with subordinate race and gender, disabled people are also regarded as inferior and “the other” in the society and are considered to be a burden for their families and friends in the personal attitudes of non-disabled people (Wendell 2016 p.43). This discriminatory and inferior attitude towards disabled people can also be termed of “ableism”. The attitudinal barriers in an individual level such as discrimination and stigmatization are among the factors disable rights activists were fighting against during the US disability rights movement.
Going further with an institutional level, disabled people are not only discriminated and unequally treated by individuals, but also by state laws, policies, programs, and strategies. State level achievements of US disability rights movement make it clear that the state has not provided disabled people with enough proper access to the facilities and disability infrastructure, has adopted laws concerning non-disabled people and has disfavored disabled people in terms of employment and education opportunities. Respectively, in a state level, the institutional barriers led the disable rights activists to redefine disability through legal and political action (Scotch 1989 p.380) and fought for an institutional change through equal rights and equal opportunities for public education and employment in the US disability rights movement.
Proceeding with the very brief history and development of the US disability rights movement, it is important to note that the US disability rights movement was inspired by those of women’s social movements and black civil rights movement of a modern history, similar social movements in terms of their general goals and objectives. The disability rights movement began in 1817 with the establishment of The American School of Deaf which was the first educational institution using a sign language for a disabled people. Growing in an importance since then, disability rights captured a special attention when the hundreds of people participated in World War I and World War II became physically or mentally disabled. Alongside the disability rights movement history, parents were also among the self-advocates who were fighting for equal treatment of their physically and mentally disabled children. The history of US disability rights movement also marked the establishments of early self-advocacy organizations based on different disabilities such as deafness, blindness, mental illness, and paralysis, including few and the emergence of the disability activists such as Judy Heumann.
Coming to the outcomes, US disability rights movement had a huge positive impact on the lives of disabled people. First and foremost, disability rights movement became an influential in providing the civil rights for people with disabilities in an institutional level with a great attention on the legal acts. Here I am going to focus on several of them I found the most important. One of the legal acts, the Rehabilitation Act, was passed in 1973, the first act in history providing disabled people with civil rights protected by law. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established a federal commitment to the rights of access for disabled people covering public transportations, local schools and colleges, government and social service agencies (Scotch 2009 p.20). Another very influential legal act providing an equal access to public accommodations, telecommunications, governmental programs and facilities and ensuring non-discrimination in private employment was the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) enacted in 1990 (Scotch 2009 p.20). The ADA also mandated businesses to provide people with disabilities with workplace accommodations, including restructuring jobs, modifying an exam material or hiring readers to assist an employee. With this piece of legislation, US government ensured the full participation of people with mental and physical disabilities in all spheres of the society (Switzer 2003 p. 70).
Further, provision of equal access to public education for physically and mentally disabled children was another important outcome of the American disability rights movement. Initially, provision of public education for children with disabilities was enacted through the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 that later renamed to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 (Switzer 2003 p.70). Coming to a context of the particular public education act of legislation, it specified a right to education for every child and guaranteed an inclusion of children with disability to mainstream education classes. 1990’s renamed act on education also concentrated on the inclusion of parents for an educational decision-making of their children (Switzer 2003 p.71).
Although US disability rights movement put a lot of emphasis on the civil rights of disabled people, it was not a sole focus of the movement. Fighting for an independent living and creation of over 300 independent living centers (ILCs) by 1980 was another a very positive outcome of the US disability rights movement (Scotch 1989 p.394). The independent living under the disability rights movement meant a control of one’s life based on his/her choice of acceptable options that minimize a reliance on the others in making decisions and in performing daily activities (Bryan 2002 p.173). Hence, the main function of the independent living centers was a provision of a wide range of services to disabled people, such as wheelchair repair, information on accessible housing, referral on accessible employment, political advocacy and peer counseling. It, therefore, became a different path for a disabled people in the realization of their full freedom and maintenance of controls of their lives (Bryan 2002 p.174).
In this paper, I analyzed one of the well-known social movements in the US history, Disability Rights Movement touching upon its causes, history, and development, and results. The disability rights movement had a great positive impact on the lives of disabled people and it was especially successful in terms of granting legislative changes for an equal access, rights and opportunities of disabled people in an institutional or state level. I think that the movement was not as successful at a personal and attitudinal level as in an institutional one: Changing the perceptions, stereotypes and discriminatory behavior of members of US society has not been completed yet, hence, future disability activists may put far more attention to influence the minds of non-disabled people, in particular.