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Redefining Difference: The Emergence of the Disability Movement

jmorgant's picture

My interest in the disability movement was generated by our class discussions on the meanings and constructions of disability. Along with Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies, I am currently taking a class at Haverford called Social Movement Theory, where we have discussed how and why movements emerge under certain conditions. Throughout the course of my research on the disability movement, I found that three phenomena were pivotal in accounting for its emergence, expansion, and relative success: organizers managed to build broad and diverse coalitions, garner the support of influential political elites, and spark vast changes in consciousness.

Scholars vary in their estimations of the time period during which the disability movement emerged. The first legislation relating specifically to the disabled was passed after World War I in order to accommodate wounded soldiers returning from Europe. However, a flurry of legislation and organizing activity did not surface until the 1970s alongside other social movements in the United States. The first significant piece of legislation was the 1973 Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of the bill read,

“No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, shall solely be reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This legislation, rife with civil rights terminology, was far from ubiquitously supported. President Nixon vetoed the bill twice, which incited counter-mobilization. Thirty-five organizations lobbied to override Nixon’s vetoes. The bill was eventually passed as a result of their efforts, but implementation of Section 504 regulations was delayed. Furthermore, Joseph Califano, Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, refused to sign Section 504 until he had altered it to allow for certain loopholes and exceptions.

The (now defunct) American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was founded in 1974 by attendees of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and was comprised of organizations who represented and advocated for the rights of the blind, deaf, paralyzed, paraplegic, and otherwise disabled. The ACCD was the first organization to bring together diverse groups under the umbrella term “disabled.” Many of the leaders of the ACCD had prior experience organizing in the civil rights movement. Others had connections to the American Friends Service Committee, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, and in party politics (Pfeiffer 165).

With the institutional capacity provided by the ACCD and the outrage over the delay in the signing of Section 504, a variety of interest groups organized demonstrations in March 1977 in order to pressure President Carter and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to enforce and comply with the regulations. The occupation of the regional office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco was especially successful because of the support of external organizations such as The Salvation Army, the Black Panthers, labor organizations, gay rights groups, and a Hispanic group called the Mission Rebels. These organizations endorsed the protestors’ goals in their newspapers and also supplied them with basic goods such as food, toiletries, walkie-talkies, and blankets. A dozen protestors traveled to Washington, D.C. in April 1977 accompanied by the ABC TV San Francisco affiliate to lobby lawmakers in person. There they were met with further external assistance: The International Association of Machinists rented a Hertz truck to transport the disabled around Washington, further increasing the movement’s visibility.

The movement’s capacity to garner not only the support of diverse civil rights and social justice organizations but also sympathetic representation by the media in turn won the collaboration of political elites. California Congressman Tom Bates of Berkeley eventually sent a letter with the signatures of forty-six state assembly people supporting the demonstrators’ demands. The disability movement also received support from the mayor, assemblyman, and board of supervisors of San Francisco. This culminated in Califano’s approval of Section 504 on April 28, 1977, 24 days after the sit-ins had begun.

The passage of Section 504 was facilitated by but also strengthened new constructions of group identity and changes in consciousness. The disability movement is comprised of individuals and groups with many diverse experiences, and linkages between them were pivotal to the fulfillment of their demands. Disability has historically been stigmatized as something to be ashamed of, and disabled people perceived to be dependent on others. Predictably, this paternalism is suffered twofold by disabled females, who experience “a compounding of the dependent identity already associated with the female role” (Altman 75). Disabled women have found that “welfare agencies, the medical establishment, residential institutions, rehabilitators, employers and well-intentioned strangers have played this fatherly role in our lives” (Browne et. al 13). Thus, there clearly existed the need for a change in consciousness in order for disabled people to form a cohesive and powerful movement, on the one hand, and society to accept them as full rights-bearing citizens on the other.

According to Roberta Ann Johnson, three facets of this change of consciousness were crucial to the emergence and relative success of the disability movement: destigmatization, group identification, and development of feelings of efficacy. The demonstrations united individuals, emphasizing commonalities over differences. The movement employed civil rights rhetoric, even adopting the well-known mantra, “we shall overcome.” The government’s positive respond to the movements’ demands encouraged further organization and institutionalization. David Pfeiffer, editor of the journal Disability Studies Quarterly, adopts a more pessimistic view of the disability movement: “The disability movement has no interest in joining some new, broad movement… Until change happens in society, there will be no disability movement nor people with disabilities” (Pfeiffer 179). Based on the success of the disability movement in San Francisco, however, it appears that the movement’s alliances with diverse advocacy organizations were crucial to its success and indeed initiated some societal changes.

The experience of the disability movement in the 1970s suggests that when governments grant only limited rights to marginalized groups, they in turn organize to leverage their demands. Explains Johnson, “The government’s paternalistic generosity might have undermined a social movement of the disabled had there been no four-year delay in the signing of the [regulations]. Instead, the government legitimized a goal and then ignored it, thus forcing the disabled to struggle, and the struggle created consciousness” (Johnson 40). This same phenomenon occurred in the women’s movement: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was reluctant to include a “sex” provision under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. A “pro-woman coterie” within the EEOC “argued that ‘sex’ would be taken more seriously if there were ‘some sort of NAACP for women’ to put pressure on the government” (Freeman 28). In response, women formed the National Organization for Women (NOW).

The disability movement provides insight into the ways in which marginalized, often isolated individuals can be incorporated into a social movement. While the support of allied organizations and politicians is important, a change is consciousness is a crucial aspect of movement creation, especially, as we’ve seen, in this case: “Because people with disabilities are seen to be abnormal, their civil rights can be routinely violated” (Pfeiffer 179). However, by paradoxically emphasizing these common experiences of discrimination and difference, the disabled created a community. Organizations like American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) and Not Dead Yet (NDY) continue to advocate for the rights of disabled persons.


Works Cited


Altman, Barbara Mandell. “Disabled Women in the Social Structure.” With the Power of

Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology. Eds. Susan E. Browne, Debra

Connors, and Nanci Stern. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1985. 69-76. Print.


Browne, Susan E. et. al. With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s

Anthology. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1985. Print.


Freeman, Jo. “The Women’s Movement.” The Social Movement Reader: Cases and

Concepts. Eds. Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper. Malden, MA: Blackwell

Publishing, 2009. 24-35. Print.


Johnson, Roberta Ann. “Mobilizing the Disabled.” Waves of Protest: Social Movements

Since the Sixties. Eds. Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson. Lanham: Rowman and

Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. 25-45. Print.


Pfeiffer, David. “The Disability Movement: Ubiquitous but Unknown.” Teamsters and

Turtles? U.S. Progressive Political Movements in the 21st Century. Ed. John C.

Berg. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003. 159-183. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

HIstorically...and closer to home?


I'm really glad to have this historical overview of the disability rights movement, which was the impetus for its academic arm, disability studies (which is where I entered….) Thanks for all the research you did to provide this background; I know much more than I did before reading your essay!

And now (of course), having read this, I have many more questions. I'd be interested in hearing you generalize a bit more from the details of the story you tell here (there's a nice comment space here….) Are the three phenomena you found pivotal in accounting for the emergence, expansion, and relative success of disability rights--"broad and diverse coalitions, the support of influential political elites, and vast changes in consciousness"--common to the other social movements you are studying in your theory course? Does understanding more about how disability rights became a movement help you to think through some of the questions we posed the very first day of class, about the value of working for segregated rights, vs. collaboration among loosely affiliated groups?

I'd also really be interested in hearing this story carried forward. You say that "the disabled created a community," by emphasizing their "common experiences of discrimination and difference." But I know there have been lots of fissures both in disability rights and disability studies, between those with physical and mental disabilities, and between both those groups and others (like the Deaf) who identify themselves as belonging to a culture, rather than possessing a disability. What happens, in other words, when the experiences are not "common," or when an organizing group wants to insist on its singularity? In what ways are organizations like American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today and Not Dead Yet advocating similarly and differently for the rights of disabled persons?

Finally, I'd be interested in your bringing this a little more closely "home." You'd posted an interesting query a few weeks ago about enhancing able minds  --asking for others’ thoughts about "non-prescription Adderall and Ritalin use and abuse, especially as it relates to the concept of able-mindedness (when 'able minds' are not 'able' enough!) and to the Honor Code." I'd be interested in hearing your own thoughts on this question.

I'm also remembering an e-mail conversation among you, me and Kaye, when you told us that you needed to miss class earlier this semester for a field hockey game. Kaye asked whether "your situation be an example of how personal traits of athleticism and leadership and social structures of away games could 'disable' someone in the traditional classroom." I wonder how you might answer that question, in light of the historical review you've provided here??