In 2019, the Disability Rights Movement history timeline pictured below was installed outdoors at Philadelphia's City Hall Courtyard and indoors at the Parkway Central Library.
City Hall photo courtesy Creative Philadelphia.

Disability Rights Movement timeline at Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard
Disability Rights Movement timeline on wall in the Parkway Central Library, Philadelphia

Timeline of Historical Milestones in The Disability Rights Movement

This timeline uses language that is historically correct, but no longer considered acceptable.


Formal Deaf Education Begins in the U.S.
Thomas H. Gallaudet founds the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford, Connecticut. It is the first permanent school for the deaf in America.*


Braille Invents the Raised Point Alphabet
Louis Braille invents the raised point alphabet that makes him a household name today. His method doesn't become well-known in the United States until more than 30 years after it is first taught at the St. Louis School for the Blind in 1860.


Eugenic Sterilization Law for People with Disabilities Enacted
Indiana becomes the first state to enact a eugenic sterilization law—for "confirmed idiots, imbeciles and rapists"—in state institutions.* The law spreads like wildfire and is enacted in 24 other states. In 1927, compulsory sterilization is ruled constitutional.


Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Person with a Disability, Elected President
Franklin D. Roosevelt becomes the 32nd president of the United States and is re-elected for an unprecedented four terms. In August 1921, while vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Roosevelt contracted an illness, believed to be polio, which resulted in total and permanent paralysis from the waist down. After becoming President, he supports the founding of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes). In recognition of his support of this organization, FDR is commemorated on the dime.

1934 - 1940

National Federation of the Blind Founded
At the age of 23, Jacobus tenBroek, blind from the age of 14, joins with Dr. Newel Perry and others to form the California Council of the Blind (later renamed later the National Federation of the Blind of California). This becomes a model for the national organization he forms six years later.


Social Security Act Signed into Law
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, establishing a program of permanent assistance for adults with disabilities.


Nazi Program Kills Thousands of People with Disabilities
At the onset of World War II Adolph Hitler orders widespread "mercy killing" of the sick and disabled.* Code-named Aktion T4, the Nazi euthanasia program is instituted to eliminate "life unworthy of life." Between 75,000 to 250,000 people with intellectual or physical disabilities are systematically killed from 1939 to 1941.


Beginning of National Barrier-Free Standards
Disabled veterans and people with disabilities begin the barrier-free movement. The combined efforts of the Veterans Administration, The President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and the National Easter Seals Society, among others, results in the development of national standards for "barrier-free" buildings.


National Mental Health Foundation Founded
The National Mental Health Foundation is founded by American conscientious objectors from WWII who served as attendants at state mental institutions rather than serving in the war. The Foundation exposes the abusive conditions at these facilities and becomes an impetus toward deinstitutionalization.


National "Employ the Physically Handicapped Week," Washington, D.C.*
Presidential Committee launches publicity campaigns, coordinated by state and local committees, to emphasize the competence of people with disabilities. Campaign uses movie trailers, billboards, radio and television ads to convince the public that it is good business to hire people with disabilities.

Paralyzed Veterans of America organization founded
Paralyzed Veterans of America advocates for veterans of the [United States] armed forces who have experienced spinal cord injury. The organization promotes and protects the civil rights of veterans with disabilities.


The ARC Champions Abilities of People with Intellectual Disabilities
Parents of children with intellectual disabilities found the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC).* The association works to change public perception of intellectual disability. The organization, now renamed The Arc, continues to ensure that the estimated 7.2 million Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities have the services and supports they need to grow, develop, and live in communities across the nation.


Brown v Board of Education
School segregation is abolished, and public schools are given permission to educate children with significant intellectual disabilities.


Ed Roberts Fights for Admission to University, starting the Independent Living Movement
Ed Roberts, a young man with polio, enrolls at the University of California, Berkeley. After his admission is rejected, he fights to get the decision overturned. His advocacy, along with that of Judy Huemann, inspires the Independent Living Movement and helps establish the first Center for Independent Living (CIL).

1963 Community Mental Health Act signed into Law

On October 31, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signs into law...
the Community Mental Health Act (also known as the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963*). The Act drastically altered the delivery of mental health services and inspired a new era of optimism in mental healthcare.


Civil Rights Bill Bypasses Persons with Disabilities
The Civil Rights Act is passed. While the Act helps end discrimination against African Americans and women in the workplace, it does not make any provision for people with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities still lack opportunities to participate in and be contributing members of society, are denied access to employment, and are discriminated against based on disability.


Medicaid Assistance for People with Disabilities and those with Low-Income
Title XIX (19) of the Social Security Act creates a cooperative federal/state entitlement program, known as Medicaid, that pays medical costs for certain individuals with disabilities and families with low incomes.


The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968
Act mandates the removal of what is perceived to be the most significant obstacle to employment for people with disabilities—the physical design of the buildings and facilities on the job. The act requires that all buildings designed, constructed, altered, or leased with federal funds be made accessible.


Educator and Disability Activist Judy Heumann denied teaching license, sues the New York City Board of Education
Educator and activist Judy Heumann sues the New York City Board of Education when her application for a teaching license is denied. The stated reason is the same originally used to deny her admission to kindergarten—that her wheelchair is a fire hazard. The suit, settled out of court, launches Heumann's activism. Her advocacy, and that of Ed Roberts, inspires the Independent Living Movement. Huemann later serves in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education from 1993 to 2001.


Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Lawsuit demands access to education for all handicapped children, resulting in the 1972 PARC Consent Decree. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania states that education should be provided for all children regardless of any physical or mental handicap.*


Disabled in Action, PA founded
Disabled in Action becomes one of the first disabled led advocacy organizations in Philadelphia. Its slogan, "Nothing About Us Without Us," is borrowed from the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The group remains active today.


Last of "Ugly Laws" Repealed
The last "Ugly Law" is repealed in Chicago, Illinois, in 1974. These laws allowed police to arrest and jail people for no reason other than being "disfigured" or demonstrating some type of disability.


Inaugural Convention of People First
The first convention for People First is held in Portland, Oregon. The national organization is founded by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who support each other in learning to speak for themselves.


The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act Enacted
Amended in 1993 to recognize disability as a natural part of the human experience.

The Education for Handicapped Children Act
The Education for Handicapped Children Act of 1975—later reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is signed into law.* The Act guarantees a free, appropriate, public education for all children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons
Resolution is the 3447th made by the Assembly and forms a framework that may be drawn on for the purposes of international and domestic law. The Declaration consists of a preamble, and thirteen proclamations that broadly promote the rights of those with disabilities. In 2007 the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted.

Social Model of Disability replaces Medical Model
The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation and the Disability Alliance develop fundamental principles that change the way disability is considered.* This "social model" rejects a medical construct of disability focusing on environmental systematic and attitudinal barriers.


Deaf Actress cast in Sesame Street
Deaf actress Linda Bove, graduate of Gallaudet College and veteran of the National Theater for the Deaf, signs a long-term contract to play Linda the librarian on public television's beloved Sesame Street.


Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital
Landmark lawsuit leads to the 1987 closure of Pennhurst, one of the largest state-run institutions for people with disabilities in Pennsylvania.


Disability Demonstrators Occupy Federal Office of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), San Francisco, California.
Demonstrators led by Judy Heumann take over the Health Education and Welfare (HEW) office in UN Plaza, San Francisco, California. Demonstrators protest HEW Secretary Califano's refusal to complete regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, making it illegal for federal agencies, public universities, and other public institutions receiving any federal funds to discriminate on the basis of disability. After 25 days, Secretary Califano relents and signs the regulations into effect. The take-over event is the longest occupation of a federal office by protestors in U.S. history.


National Council on Disability Established
The National Council on Disability is established as an advisory board within the Department of Education. Its purpose is to promote policies, programs, practices, and procedures that guarantee equal opportunity for all people with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability, and to empower them to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.

"We will ride! "Disability Activists Protest Inaccessibility of Buses, Denver, CO. Americans with Disabilities for Accessible Transportation (ADAPT) is founded.
In Denver, Colorado, nineteen members of the Atlantis Community block buses with their wheelchairs—chanting "We will ride!"—to demonstrate the inaccessibility of public transportation. Protests lead to the 1983 founding of Americans with Disabilities for Accessible Public Transportation (ADAPT). For seven years ADAPT—under the leadership of Bob Kafka, Stephanie Thomas, and Mike Auberger—blocked buses in cities across the U.S. to demonstrate the need for access to public transit. After the passage of the ADA (and transit measures gained by ADAPT's hard work), ADAPT shifts its focus to attendant and community-based services, becoming American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today.


United Nations Encourages Global Equality and Participation for the Disabled
The United Nations General Assembly adopts "The World Program of Action Concerning the Disabled" to encourage full participation and equality for people with disabilities around the world.

Speaking for Ourselves, Pennsylvania is founded.
Self-advocacy organization for people with disabilities emerges as a distinct voice in the Disability Rights Movement.

National Organization on Disability
Alan A. Reich founds the National Organization on Disability (NOD). NOD's mission is to expand the participation and contribution of Americans with disabilities in all aspects of life and to close the participation gap by raising disability awareness through programs and information. As president of NOD, Reich builds the coalition of disability groups that successfully fight for the inclusion of a statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair at the FDR Memorial. Reich remains an international leader in the disability community until his death in 2005.


"Deaf President Now!" Protest, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.
Gallaudet University, the world's only university with all programs and services designed specifically for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, appoints another in a long line of hearing presidents. Gallaudet students, with support from many alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the University, protested the Board of Trustees' appointment.

The Deaf President Now (DPN) week-long protest was a watershed event in the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people all over the world. At its conclusion, the Board reversed its decision and named I. King Jordan, PhD, the eighth president of Gallaudet and the first deaf president since the institution was established in 1864. I. King Jordan's leadership heightens public awareness of the important educational contributions Gallaudet makes to the nation and the world. Jordan retires from Gallaudet in 2006. In 2019, Jordan is appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Commission on Presidential Scholars.


The Pennsylvania Early Intervention Services System Act—212
Early Intervention services are offered to eligible infants, toddlers and preschoolers from birth to entry to school age.

Capitol Crawl Protest
On March 12, 1990 disability rights activists arrive at the U.S. Capitol and demand the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Over 1,000 protesters from 30 states to protest the delay in passing the Act. After a day of rallies and speeches, over 60 activists abandoned their wheelchairs and mobility devices and began crawling the 83 stone steps up to the U.S. Capitol Building. Protestors chant "What do we want?" "ADA!" "When do we want it?" "NOW!" Other activists remained at the bottom encouraging the crawlers. "I want my civil rights," Paulette Patterson of Chicago states as she inched her way to the top. "I want to be treated like a human being." The "Capitol Crawl" becomes instrumental in the passage of the ADA.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is signed into law.
President George H.W. Bush signs landmark legislation prohibiting the discrimination of people with disabilities in all areas of public life including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion.


Federal Government Makes Autism a Special Education Category
The federal government makes autism a special education category. Public schools begin identifying children on the spectrum and offering them special services.


National Home of Your Own Alliance founded
The National Home of Your Own Alliance is created to help states develop home ownership initiatives targeted to the needs of people with developmental disabilities.


National Federation of the Blind establishes dial-up synthetic-speech talking newspaper
New technology makes a daily newspaper available to blind people by 6:30 a.m. on day of issue.


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act is renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Reauthorized Act requires students with disabilities to be involved in developing their transition plans, and their interests and preferences are to be considered.


Federal Telecommunications Act Enacted
Act requires computers, telephones, closed captioning and many other telecommunication devices and equipment be made accessible.


Assistive Technology Act Signed into Law
The Act was a renewal and expansion of the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1989.


Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W.
Most important civil rights decision for people with disabilities in US History. Olmstead requires states to provide services in the most integrated setting and reinforced the right of people with disabilities to live in the community.


The Commonwealth of Virginia Formally Expresses Regret for Eugenics
Virginia's eugenics legislation resulted in the involuntary sterilization of more than 8,000 people with disabilities between 1924 and 1979. The Commonwealth becomes the first in the US to formally express its regret for this practice.


First Disability Pride Parade, Chicago
A coalition of disability rights advocates and organizations holds the first Disability Pride Parade. Event designed to "change the way people think about and define disability, to break down and end the internalized shame among people with disabilities, and to promote the belief in society that disability is a natural and beautiful part of life."" Organizers expect 500-600 people to participate – nearly 2,000 attend.


Road-To-Freedom Tour
The Road-to-Freedom bus tour and photographic exhibit chronicled the history of the grassroots "people's movement" that led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Photographer and activist Tom Olin drives the bus to 48 states, drawing governors, mayors, and commissioners to events in cities and towns across the nation. Event repeated in 2014 for the ADA Legacy Tour.


West Virginia Requires Disability History to be Taught in Schools
Largely due to the efforts of 20 young people with disabilities (the West Virginia Youth Disability Caucus), West Virginia becomes the first state to require that the history of the disability rights movement be taught in schools grades K-12.


Rosa's Law Enacted
President Barack Obama signs legislation that replaces the term "mental retardation" with the term "intellectual disability." Law is named for 9-year old Rosa Marcellino, a young advocate with Down syndrome.


Philadelphia Disability Pride Celebration
Philadelphia celebrates its first Disability Pride day. Advocate Justin Dart's wheelchair is put on permanent exhibit in the National Constitution Center.


ADAPT Activists Fight to Save Affordable Care Act / Medicaid
On June 22, after numerous attempts to meet with legislators to discuss their concerns about the healthcare bill, a group of disability rights advocates and ADAPT protest in Senator Mitch McConnell's Washington, D.C. office. Some protesters lay on the ground to stage a die-in, while others are dragged from their wheelchairs by police. Dozens of people are arrested — similar scenes unfold nationally. Protestors notably sat in Senator Cory Gardner's Denver office for two days before being forcibly removed.


  • National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth
  • Disability Equality in Education
  • Liberty Resources
  • Karin Willison
  • History by ZIM, Beyond the Textbooks (Jess Zimmerman)

Is there a milestone you would like to add to our timeline?

Contact Lisa Sonneborn at