For Disability Awareness Month I’ve put together a list of five influential people of the disability rights movement in the United States. This is just a short list of some people who have made a tremendous impact on how people with disabilities are able to live today.
2. Virginia “Gini” Grace Wilson Laurie – She is considered one of the “grandmothers” of the independent living movement. A year before her birth in 1913, two of her sisters died from poliomyelitis and her brother was left severely disabled. As an adult, she volunteered with the Red Cross in the Cleveland Toomey Pavilion rehab center during the 1949 polio epidemic. In 1958, she took the unpaid job of editor of the Toomeyville Gazette, a newsletter put together by patients who recovered at the rehab center after contracting polio. The Gazette published articles on legislation, activism and what would become known as the independent living movement. In 1970, Gini wrote an article in the newly-named Rehabilitation Gazette where she stated plainly that for people with disabilities, the most important thing “is the right to freedom of choice to live as normal a life as possible within the community…Segregation is unnormal.” In 1977, she wrote Housing and Home Services for the Disabled: Guidelines and Experiences in Independent Living”. It pointed to the fact that it is more cost-effective for people with disabilities to live in their community than being put into institutions or nursing homes, an important point still being driven in the disability movement today. She died in 1989 of cancer.
3. Ed Roberts – After contracting polio at age 14 and living in the hospital for two years, Ed was finally able to move back home. But things were very different. Because of the polio, he was only able to move two fingers and slept in an iron lung. His struggle against discrimination began immediately when school administrators did not allow him to attend school with his classmates. They felt it was best to have teachers instruct him privately at home. The family fought back and they won him the right to attend school with his classmates. After graduating from a junior college, he had to go through another battle in order to be allowed to attend the University of California in Berkeley. He eventually won this fight as well and went on to study Political Science. Because of Ed, more disabled students were allowed to attend Berkeley and they eventually formed a disabled student organization on campus. Their focus was to make the university more accessible and provide trainings on daily support techniques. In 1972, Ed helped the group form the first Center for Independent Living which was considered radical at the time because it was run by people with disabilities rather than medical professionals. He became the first person to serve as the Director of California’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. In 1981, he and Judy Heumann and Joan Leon started the World Institute on Disability (WID) which studies legal rights issues for people with disabilities around the world. Often referred to as “the father of the disability rights movement”, he was president of WID until his death in 1995.
4. Justin Dart – At the age of 18, Justin contracted polio which left him unable to walk. He came from a wealthy family in Chicago and in 1967 he and his wife devoted their lives to helping people with disabilities. On his own dime, they travelled the across the United States in the early 1980’s which was quite an undertaking because many places were not wheelchair accessible. Universal design was just beginning to be implemented in larger cities but in smaller ones, it was practically unheard of. What was learned through conversations during this tour was the basis for a policy that called for national rights for people with disabilities. It would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Because of the national dialogue that took place during this time and the subsequent passing of the ADA, Justin Dart is considered to be “the godfather” of the ADA. In 1995, he founded the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) along with others. At the age of 71, he died in 2002 from congestive heart failure related to complications of post-polio syndrome.
5. Wade Blank – emulating the great Dr. King, Wade began a movement in the 1970’s within the disability community in Denver, Colorado that would give rise to ADAPT, a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action. A former minister, he saw the sad living conditions of individuals with severe disabilities in nursing homes and took it upon himself to make changes. He not only moved people from institutions into independent living centers but these very same people became co-protestors in his fight against the discrimination built into the public transportation system. They waged the first sit-in of their kind and surrounded a bus with their wheelchairs in Denver. The group quickly expanded to other cities around the US, holding demonstrations fighting for accessibility in public bus systems. His group’s national recognition paid off as accessible public transportation was included in The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark law passed in 1990. He continued to be a leader in the civil rights movement of people with disabilities until his death in 1993.
Without these role models and others like them, people with disabilities would not have the right to a free and public education, public transportation and barrier-free public places, among other civil rights. Although there is still much work to be done, it is uncontestable that the foundation laid down by these pioneers sparked a movement that is still growing today.
Can you think of any others who have made a major impact on the lives of people with disabilities?