July 26th, 2014 marked the beginning of a yearlong countdown to the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA). Over the coming months, the ADA Legacy Tour will travel the country hosting events and celebrating milestones that have been achieved during the past decades. For those who have grown up under the legal protection of the ADA, it can be hard to fathom the abuses that disabled people have suffered throughout the years.
While the term disabled encompasses a wide range of physical, intellectual, and mental challenges, prior to and during the 1800s, this label was even more liberally used and applied to virtually anyone deemed a drain on society. Being judged as disabled meant being sent to an asylum where residents were rarely granted release. The goal of these institutions was to sequester segments of the population, not to treat illnesses or rehabilitate citizens. Conditions were often deplorable and a lack of ethical standards meant that patients were beaten, sexually assaulted, and used for medial experimentation.
Women, in particular, were especially vulnerable to being locked away. Husbands and fathers could have their family members sent away for disobedience, anxiety, depression, and even infidelity and promiscuity. It wasn’t unheard of for husbands to have their wives declared as hysterical just to end the marriage without having to go through an actual divorce. In practice, the term disabled simply meant nuisance and was used as a weapon against the powerless.
The mistreatment of disabled Americans continued well into the twentieth century. While there were advocates working to change the way disabled people were viewed and treated, discrimination against the disabled actually became more institutionalized through legislative actions. Perhaps one of the most disturbing periods in the history of disability rights was when the practice of eugenics became law. The Eugenics movement “advocated for practices to ‘improve the genetic composition of the population’ passed laws to prevent people with disabilities from moving to the Unites States, marrying or having children. Eugenics laws led to the institutionalized and forced sterilization of disabled adults and children.”
Carrie Buck is perhaps one of the most famous figures in the history of Eugenics practices in the United States. Carrie was raped by her foster parents’ nephew, became pregnant, and was quickly shipped off to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded based on charges of “feeblemindedness, incorrigible behavior and promiscuity.” She was later sterilized as part of a compulsory program and although a case against the surgeon who performed the operation went all the way to the Supreme Court, an 8-1 ruling upheld the validity of her sterilization.
As an explanation for his ruling, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often no felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tube. Three generations of imbeciles are enough (referring to Carrie, her mother and daughter).
In the United States, Indiana became the first state to legalize sterilization. Over the coming decades, 32 other states started similar programs that targeted those with intellectual deficiencies, mental illness, physical deformities, blindness, deafness, and even epilepsy. Eugenics continued to be a common practice in the United States until 1977 although it is still technically legal.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements gained traction that disability rights also began to gain attention. Early efforts focused on barrier free access to buildings and public transportation. The ADA represented the most comprehensive approach to standardizing and guaranteeing disability rights across the country. Not only does it provide for accessibility, the Act also makes it illegal for anyone, including employers and landlords, to discriminate against those with disabilities in any way, including hiring and promotions.
Because the ADA marked such a substantial achievement in the way disabled Americans are viewed and treated, it only seems right to celebrate the Act’s 25th anniversary with a year’s worth of events and programs. The ADA Legacy Group
has partnered with cities, businesses, and organizations across the countries that share the common goals of preserving history, celebrating milestones, and educating citizens. Visit their website
for a list of event dates and times and learn more about how you or your company can become a partner.