On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Introduced into the United States Congress in 1988, the ADA is widely recognized and commemorated by disabled people as landmark civil rights legislation and as the culmination of decades of grassroots organizing by disabled people and their allies.
Together, the titles that comprise the ADA are designed to provide equal access to persons with disabilities and to bar discrimination against us in all areas of public life. While not a panacea for the oppression of all disabled people in the United States, the ADA has, for example, transformed many built environments in essential ways that make community living for disabled people more possible. Although often unrecognized, these modifications — such as curb cuts, ramps, closed captioning and audio-visual announcements on transit — benefit non-disabled people as well.
The death of the former president on World AIDS Day 2018 has inspired a flurry of hagiographies, some penned by disability rights advocates, that feature the passage of the ADA as a prominent part of Bush’s legacy as a “kinder, gentler” leader. These reconfigurations of history, in which Bush is imagined as the engine of the disability rights movement, cast a long shadow on the struggle of disabled people and imperil disabled peoples’ activist movements today.
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The disability rights movement and other disability activist movements in the United States did not begin in the late 1980s. Although activists and scholars have painted many narratives of the origins of the disability rights movement, the beginnings of an early disability politics in the United States is evident in the protests that were organized by disabled people at New York City’s Emergency Relief Bureau in the mid-1930s. The protesters took aim at city- and federal-level policies that categorized all disabled people as “unemployable,” thereby systematically excluding them from work relief programs. Out of these actions, the League of the Physically Handicapped was formed as a group of mostly white, physically disabled organizers that would go on to fight against discrimination in Works Progress Administration projects for several years.
The 1960s and 1970s continued to be a crucial period when disabled activists formulated a politics that demanded equality in public space, and the Bay Area of California became an epicenter to build power for actualizing those demands. Organizing on and around the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, by disabled students, and later, workers in Centers of Independent Living fomented the “independent living movement.” Some of the guiding principles of this movement, including rights to participation and community integration, are reflected in the very text of the ADA.
One pivotal area of disabled-led organizing that served as a legislative precursor to the ADA involves a provision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 called Section 504. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon twice vetoed the Act, which would have provided funding and programs for disabled people, asserting the legislation was too costly. Disabled people organized sit-ins and rallies to protest the then-president’s actions. A final bill eventually passed, which included provisions that dramatically expanded disability rights. One of those provisions, Section 504 is particularly significant in that it used language directly copied out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to legally prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities by programs that receive federal funding. Although this marked an important turning point in disabled peoples’ struggle for civil rights, there was a bigger fight looming ahead. For Section 504 to be enforced, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) had to issue the required regulations.
As the Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations delayed Section 504 regulations, disability activists exacted their focus. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) arose as an important force, among others, in actions that would force Section 504 regulations to be signed. ACCD organizers, including deaf organizer and Executive Director Frank Bowe, initially attempted to work with the incoming Carter administration. However, following a meeting in March of 1977 with Joseph Califano, Carter’s secretary of HEW, it had become clear that HEW had no intention of signing the regulations. Consulting Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, Bowe called for massive sit-in demonstrations at HEW regional offices across the country if regulations were not issued by April 4, 1977. On April 5, with Section 504 regulations undelivered, disabled protesters occupied HEW offices in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC; San Francisco’s sit-in lasted for a historic 26 days.
The importance of the 504 sit-ins cannot be overstated: They were an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the disabled community to demand civil rights, move bureaucratic levers and build a politics of coalition. The San Francisco sit-ins attracted significant media attention and support in the form of food, medications and other provisions from the Black Panther Party, unions and other groups. Two weeks into the sit-in, a small cadre of protesters left San Francisco to testify in Washington, DC. Following their testimonies, Secretary Califano signed the Section 504 regulations and, once they determined the regulations were satisfactory, the disabled organizers in San Francisco called off their sit-in.
In the years leading up to the passage of the ADA, as disability activists continued to agitate for civil rights, they encountered considerable challenges. One such challenge was the Ronald Reagan administration’s Task Force for Regulatory Relief spearheaded by Vice President George H.W. Bush. This task force’s first targets were Section 504 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which mandated equal access to education for disabled students in federally funded schools. However, in the wake of protests by people in the disabled community, the Reagan administration announced in 1983 that it was dropping its objections to the legislation.
Although Bush did indeed go on to fully support and sign the ADA in 1990, it is an injustice to the decades of activist work by thousands, working in groups and coalitions, and especially by disabled people themselves, to suggest that Bush was responsible for the legislation. We need to resist this retelling of disability history.
The power of social movements is not to venerate people in power of the most dominant country of the world; it is to hold those people to account and to begin to create the world we need. Further, we need to continue to grapple with the ways that the disability rights movement was an incomplete movement. While disabled organizers of color played critical roles throughout this period of activism, the disability rights movement’s failure to address racism and other systems of oppression marginalized many.
Newer generations of activists, particularly queer, disabled people of color, are articulating visions for activism that move beyond disability rights to disability justice. Disability justice frameworks are intersectional and rooted in collective liberation. They not only take up ableism as a target for disability activism, but colonialism, militarism, racism and heterosexism. Given his record of destruction across the world and its impact on disabled people, ceding the ADA to Bush undermines our capacity to engage fully with the history of the disability rights movement in all its complexity, and with the frameworks that are forging the way toward the liberation of disabled people.
Let us tell a different story.