9 01 2008

Americans with disabilities: ‘The last civil rights movement’

By Marilyn Lukach

Special To The Daily Record

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Morris County, NJ


History has always been a fascinating subject for me. One thing I have learned through extensive reading: It repeats itself, and we human beings rarely pay attention to it.

I picked up a book about social issues the other day and browsed a chapter on the origin of disability rights. A couple of paragraphs later I was hooked and want to share a few facts that stood out for me.

The beat of war drums brought the plight of the disabled to the public conscience. For many people, the first thoughts about disability are because of our wounded veterans who come home with physical and mental challenges we cannot begin to fathom. Because of this, the federal government (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) took the first steps in trying to find solutions to a problem that appeared insurmountable.

It was the Revolutionary War veterans who started political advocacy for Americans with disabilities. They lobbied for federal pensions, began the first human services budget and established the first hospitals for disabled soldiers and sailors.

World War I saw the start of “vocational rehabilitation,” which helped disabled soldiers and later civilians return to work. The 1930s and 1940s produced groups protesting discrimination against disabled workers in government jobs and civilian work.

With the start of World War II, previously “unemployable” disabled men and women were employed because of a shortage of workers. After the war, these folks joined the newly disabled veterans for assistance and rights that the veterans began receiving for education, employment and rehabilitation.

Progress was slow, because before the war, the civilian disabled had been largely ignored and unaccounted for by the federal government. Families had kept their members isolated and the laws had justified it.

The word “eugenics” is defined in The American Heritage College Dictionary as “the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.” This movement was popular in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. Supporters of this concept believed that laziness, criminal activities and the like were in fact linked to inherited traits in disabilities and race.

What shocked me were some of the names listed that endorsed this ideology: Presidents Herbert Hoover and Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, and Andrew Carnegie. By the 1940s, in part because of Nazi Germany and the lack of true scientific studies, this lost credibility.

Unfortunately, laws had been passed that would not allow marriage between couples with certain disabilities and mandated committing others to institutions. In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, state governments were given permission to “sterilize those deemed genetically unfit.” Tens of thousands of disabled Americans had unnecessary surgery well into the 1970s, and forced sterilizations were still being done in 1968.

Americans with disabilities have been called “the last civil rights movement.” Before this time, disability was a personal rather than a social or political issue. The individual was usually seen as the disability itself and came challenged with the problems of that disability, not the problems of a human being.

The word “ableism” is a term that disability rights activists have used to describe social antipathy. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the term means “inherent discrimination against people with disabilities in favor of people who are not disabled.”

History shows us that the challenged have been defined as “objects of shame, fear, pity or ridicule.” Social prejudice in education, housing, employment and public accommodation was and is due to the fact that people who are different appear to be incapable of making their own decisions.

The “better dead than disabled” mentality still exists in the minds of people who do not understand that anyone at any time can become a member of this human drama. History does repeat itself.




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