Disability in America: A Brief History

6 min readSep 7, 2022

Disability, of itself, is not pitiable.

Artwork by Dadu Shin, courtesy of Digital Arts

Disability rights in the United States has seen a slow, gradual progression. To truly understand and appreciate the current movement focusing on disability rights, equity, and acceptance, we must understand the horrific past and the struggle that led us up to these moments.

The Era of Exclusion

Disabled individuals have been excluded and separated from ‘normal’ individuals for much of human history. For example, Alexander Graham Bell — the creator of the telephone — pushed teaching oralism to Deaf individuals, expressing deep disdain for the teaching and promotion of Sign Language. Bell believed that learning Sign Language would result in Deaf marriages, and therefore Deaf kids, and that this was bad for human evolution. Believing that more Deaf people would weaken humanity, he promoted eugenics.

Eugenics, an idea founded by Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin, focuses on human reproduction and evolution, promoting practices that ensure future generations inherit only the strongest of traits, while the weaker individuals and their ‘undesirable’ qualities slowly fade away.

Throughout the mid-1800s and 1900s, many disabled individuals were increasingly placed in institutions as they were seen as ‘feebleminded.’ Between the walls of various institutions such as Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, they were seen as abnormal and were hidden from the rest of society.

Here, the grossly invasive process of sterilization increased in popularity and practice. This idea is rooted in eugenics, as it essentially aims to control reproduction in humans deemed as too unfit, ill, or troubled to have children. Additionally, eugenics is tied to misogynistic beliefs that placed women at fault, therefore leading to a desire to control and limit their rights.

Photo of Carrie Buck (left) and mother Emma Buck, circa 1924. From Undark Magazine

A profound example of this is the case of Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter. A National Public Radio (NPR) Podcast called Hidden Brain had an episode called “Emma, Carrie, Vivian: How A Family Became A Test Case For Forced Sterilizations” that tells the story of Emma Buck, Carrie Buck, and her daughter Vivian. Dr. Albert Priddy was quite fond of sterilization and abided by timely Virginia laws to conduct his procedures. He pushed for more airtight laws and built a case against Carrie Buck, a woman who was sent to an institution after giving birth as a teenager. There, she met her mother who also lived in the institution. Using this mother-daughter duo, Dr. Priddy was able to build a case that negative, unwanted traits are hereditary, and even extended this belief to Vivian to further support his push for widespread, tighter legalization of sterilization. Using Carrie and her lineage as evidence, the case was eventually taken to the Supreme Court under John Bell, who took over the case after Priddy’s passing. On May 2nd, 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that Carrie Buck could be sterilized, and this resulted in a nationwide embrace for sterilizations for decades ahead.

In fact, it was not until the 1970s that the last of the nation’s sterilization laws were repealed. Throughout this time, roughly 65,000 Americans had been sterilized, and this practice targeted populations most at risk, such as the mentally ill, women, Native Americans, and African Americans. Though this practice is no longer legal in the United States, the impact of it can still be felt today. Truly, 50 years is not that long ago, further showing just how recent these civil inequities and rash perceptions of disabled individuals were.

The New Civil Rights Movement

I recently read the book No Pity, by Joseph P. Shapiro. In it, he describes the perception of disabled people and their tireless efforts of gaining respect and equitable treatment in law and society.

Passing the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, and it is easy today, especially if you are nondisabled, to overlook its importance if it does not apply to you.

In No Pity, Shapiro describes how the first introduction of the act was met with near universal disregard in 1988. The ADA brought together various populations, as anyone of any race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexuality could be disabled. Despite the vastness of the legislation, there was a seething struggle to gain enough traction to be taken seriously.

Aiding in bringing attention to the issue, Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) fought hard to make their concerns known. Protesting, engaging in sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience, their work brought attention to the matter while encouraging others to act alongside them. These protests proved fruitful in the end, as the ADA was signed into law July 26th, 1990, and took effect in 1992.

Modern Struggles and Perceptions

Though this legislation has been enacted for quite some time now, there is still so much work left to do.

Haben Girma’s book cover, courtesy of Haben Girma

Aside from reading No Pity, I started reading Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, written by Haben Girma. Haben Girma is a remarkable woman, but her successes do not come without the tumultuous struggles of her childhood years. Recounting a time at school when she was younger, Girma remarks,

“It’s a sighted, hearing classroom, in a sighted, hearing school, in a sighted hearing society. They designed this environment for people who can see and hear. In this environment, I’m disabled. They place the burden on me to step out of my world and reach into theirs.”

Girma quickly realized that she would need to change her ways and adjust to the environments around her, no matter how difficult it would be or if it would have just been easier for others to adapt to her needs, instead.

In No Pity, activist Judy Heumann similarly declared that,

“Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair”

This represents a troubling but common trend in the treatment and perception of disabled individuals today. They need to conform to society, rather than society and nondisabled people making simple and valuable accommodations for them. When the burden is placed on disabled people to adapt to their surroundings, no real change is made to promote and enhance their wellbeing. Through Girma’s story and the experiences of many other disabled people, it is clear that it is not the disability that necessarily makes life difficult, but largely that society has not changed to accommodate their needs.

Throughout her life, Girma has had to prove herself repeatedly as she battles perceptions that her disabilities make her incapable of providing any real contributions to society. Rising beyond the expectations of others, she continually excels in her endeavors and uses her experiences to create meaningful change in the world. In all, Girma’s story is inspirational and well worth the read.

With this understanding, it is imperative that nondisabled and disabled individuals continue to vocalize and amplify their rightful pushes for proper treatment, stigma reduction, representation in law, society, and culture, and increased accessibility. Disability in America and the new Civil Rights Movement is long from over, and people are fighting more than ever today. I encourage you to join the fight.




she/her | college student interested in pop culture, music, mental health, psychology, the MCU, and sharing my thoughts as things happen. Posting when I can!