Disability History

Chronology of the Disability Rights Movements

The following is a select list of national and international milestones dating back to the 1800s highlighting people, events, and legislation that affect disability rights. Items in BOLD are added from participants’ input on the Disability Timeline Activity during the Cultural Competency and Diversity workshop.

Disability Milestones: 2000 to Present


  • The Help America Vote act was passed.


  • The Commonwealth of Virginia House of Delegates approved a resolution expressing regret for its eugenics practices between 1924 and 1979.


  • Tennessee vs George Laine- Title II of ADA.

Disability Milestones: 1990s


  • In Carolyn C. Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corporation, et. al., the Supreme Court decided that people receiving Social Security disability benefits are protected against discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act if and when they are able to return to work.
  • In Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., the Supreme Court decided that individuals with disabilities must be offered services in the most integrated setting.
  • In three employment cases (Sutton et. al. v. United Air Lines, Inc., Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc. and Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg) the Supreme Court decided that individuals whose conditions do not substantially limit any life activity and are easily correctable are not disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • The Works Incentives Improvement Act (Ticket to Work) became law, allowing those who require health care benefits to work.
  • Supreme Court Olmsted Decision- mandated that medical services and support be provided in the most integrated setting for individuals rather than automatically in nursing homes.
  • Gideon Busch, a man who was a mentally disabled Hasidic Jew was pepper-sprayed, shot and killed by NYPD in Borough Park, Brooklyn after police responded to a noise complaint.


  • The Persian Gulf War Veterans Act was passed.
  • In Bragdon v. Abbott, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the definition of disability includes asymptomatic HIV.
  • In Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, the Supreme Court decided that the Americans with Disabilities Act includes state prisons.


  • Congress passed legislation eliminating more than 150,000 disabled children from Social Security rolls along with persons with alcohol and drug dependencies.
  • Not Dead Yet, formed by disabled advocates to oppose those who support assisted suicide for people with disabilities, focused on the idea of rationing health care to people with severe disabilities and imposition of “do not resuscitate” (DNR) orders for disabled people in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
  • In Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court validated the state prohibition on physician-assisted suicide, deciding that the issue is within the jurisdiction of the states.


  • Maria Rantho, South African Federation of Disabled People’s Vice-Chair, was elected to Nelson Mandela’s Parliament in South Africa. Ronah Moyo, head of the women’s wing of the Zimbabwe Federation of Disabled People, was elected to Robert Mugabe’s Parliament in Zimbabwe. Both women felt they faced an uphill struggle with legislators who were ignorant of the needs of people with disabilities.
  • The First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities was held in Beijing, China in conjunction with the Fourth World Conference on Women.
  • ACLIFM, an organization of people with disabilities in Cuba, held its first international conference on disability rights in Havana, Cuba.
  • Justice for All was organized by Justin Dart and others in Washington, D.C.
  • When Billy Broke His Head…and Other Tale of Wonder premiered on PBS. The film is about the disability rights movement.
  • The American Association of People with Disabilities was founded in Washington, D.C.
  • The U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit in Helen L. v. Snider ruled that continued institutionalization of a disabled Pennsylvania woman, when not medically necessary and where there is the option of home care, was a violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Disability rights advocates perceived this ruling as a landmark decision regarding the rights of people in nursing homes to personal assistance services.
  • Sandra Jensen, a member of People First, was denied a heart-lung transplant by the Stanford University School of Medicine because she has Down’s syndrome. After pressure from disability rights activists, Stanford U School of Medicine administrators reversed their decision. In 1996, Jensen became the first person with Down’s syndrome to receive a heart-lung transplant.


  • The American Indian Disability Legislation Project was established to collect data on Native American disability rights laws and regulations.
  • A legal case of four men convicted of sexual assault and conspiracy for raping a 17-year old mentally disabled woman in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, highlighted the widespread sexual abuse of people with developmental disabilities.
  • Robert Williams was appointed Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities. He is the first developmentally disabled person to be named the Commissioner.
  • Holland v. Sacramento City Unified School District affirmed the right of disabled children to attend public school classes with non-disabled children. The ruling was a major victory in the ongoing effort to ensure enforcement of IDEA.


  • Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act were infused with the philosophy of independent living.


  • The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed by George W. Bush. The Act provided comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Closely modeled after the Civil Rights Act and Section 504, the law was the most sweeping disability rights legislation in history. It mandated that local, state and federal governments and programs be accessible, that businesses with more than 15 employees make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled workers and that public accommodations such as restaurants and stores make “reasonable modifications” to ensure access for disabled members of the public. The act also mandated access in public transportation, communication, and in other areas of public life.
  • Sam Skinner, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, issued regulations mandating lifts on buses.
  • American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) organized The Wheels of Justice campaign in Washington, D.C. which drew hundreds of disabled people to support the Americans with Disabilities Act. Activists occupying the Capitol Rotunda were arrested when they refuse to leave.
  • The Committee of Ten Thousand was founded to advocate for people with hemophilia who were infected with HIV/AIDS through tainted blood products.
  • The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency Act was passed to help communities cope with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
  • American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) changed its focus to advocating for personal assistance services, changing its name to American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT).
  • The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was amended and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • VRS was set up to replace TTY. Now deaf can communicate in ASL instead of typing.
  • Hundreds of persons with disabilities attending a NCIL conference participated in a candlelight March in Washington shouting: WHAT DO WE WANT- ADA! WHEN DO WE WANT IT- NOW!