Disability History

Independence Now is proud to launch our Disability History Project. The project’s goal is to highlight important moments, achievements, and pioneers of the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movements. We believe that when we remember the milestones of what came before us, we can better forge our path forward toward full equity and independence.

This is a living timeline, and we welcome the contributions and inclusion of members of our community. If you would like to see an event or important milestone added to the timeline, please submit your idea here or email marketing@innow.org.

April 8, 1864
The Chapel Hall building at Gallaudet University.

President Abraham Lincoln signs a charter authorizing the institution that would become Gallaudet University, the first school for the advanced education of the deaf and hard of hearing, to confer college degrees. Learn more.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

January 31, 1939
Black and white photo of Ed Roberts.

Ed Roberts, Disability Rights Pioneer and the Father of the Independent Living Movement, is born. In 1962, he becomes the first severely disabled student at the University of California at Berkeley. Ed Roberts Day is celebrated annually on his birthday to acknowledge his contributions to the Disability Rights Movement.
Learn more.

Photo courtesy of the Ed Roberts Campus.

November 16, 1940
Nationl Federation of the Blind

Blind people from seven states—California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—met in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and successfully drafted a constitution for what would become the first national organization of the blind. Learn more.

Photo courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind.

July 2, 1964
Civil Rights Act
President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 surrounded by a group of people including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of The National Archives.

The Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations, employment, and federally assisted programs, is signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 will become a model for subsequent disability rights legislation. Learn more.

Photo courtesy of The National Archives.

October 15, 1964
White Cane Awareness Day

At the urging of the National Federation of the Blind, the United States Congress adopted a joint resolution in 1964 designating October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day and recognizing that white canes enable blind people to travel safely and independently. Learn more.

July 30, 1965
Medicare and Medicaid Act of 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare and Medicaid Act, also known as the Social Security Amendments of 1965, into law. It established Medicare, a health insurance program for the elderly, and Medicaid, a health insurance program for people with limited income including people with disabilities. Learn more.

April 11, 1968
Enactment of the Federal Fair Housing Act
President Lyndon B. Johnson at desk signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Surrounded by government officials including Newly elected Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was meant as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1968 Act expanded on previous acts and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended) disability and family status. Title VIII of the Act is also known as the Fair Housing Act (of 1968). Learn more.

Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto; image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration.

July 20, 1968
Special Olympics
Color photo from the 1968 Special Olympic Games showing swimming pool specially constructed in Soldier Field, Chicago.

The first International Special Olympics Summer Games are held at Soldier Field in Chicago.  Learn more.

Photo courtesy of The Special Olympics.

The Center for Independent Living
CIL staffers carry a banner reading "Center for Independent Living Berkeley" through the streets of San Francisco.

The Center for Independent Living is founded in Berkeley, California. Generally recognized as the world's first independent living center, the formation of the CIL sparks the worldwide independent living movement. Learn more.

Photograph by Ken Stein, courtesy of The Center for Independent Living, Inc.

April 5, 1977
504 Sit-in
Judy Heumann giving a victory speech after the 504 sit-in.

People with disabilities and the disability community occupied federal buildings in the United States in order to push the issuance of long-delayed regulations regarding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Photo: HolLynn D’Lil/Netflix
Learn more.

September 3, 1982
Katie Beckett Waivers
President Ronald Reagan meets Katie Beckett, along with her parents, Julia and Mark Beckett as the President exits Air Force One on the tarmac of Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport, Iowa, 20 September 1984.

Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, also known as TERFA, is signed by President Ronald Reagan. A TERFA waiver, or Katie Beckett waiver, helps pay for pediatric home care nursing that private insurance does not cover. The waiver is named for Katie Beckett, a three-year-old who had been hospitalized since infancy so that she could receive ventilator assistance at home.  Learn more.

Photograph by official White House photographer Michael Evans, courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

May 7, 1986
National Barrier Awareness Day

The first National Barrier Awareness Day is proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan on May 7, 1986. The day continues to be observed annually to encourage people to break down obstacles responsible for preventing the social integration of persons with disabilities. Learn more.

September 13, 1988
Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988
Congress amended the 1968 Fair Housing Act to extend “protected class” status to people with disabilities and families with children. Learn more.
March 13, 1990
The "Capitol Crawl"
A group of activists led by 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Over 1,000 people marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. When they arrived in front of the Capitol Building, many of the activists with physical disabilities immediately proceeded to crawl and pull their bodies up all 100 of the Capitol's front steps. Jennifer Keelan, a second grader with cerebral palsy, was videotaped as she pulled herself up the steps, using mostly her hands and arms, saying "I'll take all night if I have to." Learn more.

Photo: Jeff Markowitz/AP

July 26, 1990
Americans with Disabilities Act
President George Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House July 26, 1990. Joining the president are Rev. Harold Wilke, rear left, Evan Kemp, chairman of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, left, Sandra Parrino, chairman of the National Council on Disability; and Justin Dart, chairman of The President's Council on Disabilities. Jefferson Memorial is in background. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)

President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA is the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. Its employment provisions prohibit discrimination in job application procedures, hiring, advancement, termination, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.  Learn more.

Photo: Barry Thumma/AP

June 22, 1999
The Olmstead Decision

On June 22, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled through Olmstead v. L.C. that states must eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and ensure that persons with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.  Learn more.

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