A Social History of Accessibility
I’m writing this month’s column on MLK Day, through the lens of social history. Disability rights has made a long journey from the terrifying days of Eugenics, isolation and sterilization to the ADA’s vision of full rights and inclusion in society.
The 14th Amendment (1868) vs. Eugenics (1900s)
A long and ugly history preceded any legal protection for people with disabilities (see timeline). In 1868, the 14th Amendment gave citizenship and equal protection to all people born in the US. 1868! Yet in the 1920s, the Eugenics movement spread around the globe. It was started by Francis Galton, who analyzed the intelligence of England’s upper classes and determined that “it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.”
In the early 1900s, the Eugenics Record Office in Long Island collected data on “undesirable” physical and intellectual traits and by 1931, 29 states had sterilization laws that allowed doctors to ‘eliminate negative traits,’ resulting in the forced sterilization of 64,000 people in the US. It started with people with disabilities and expanded to people committing “crimes” like promiscuity or poverty. No equal protection there!
This chilling poster is just one example of the movement’s propaganda. Nazi Germany actually worked with the California Government in the 30’s to learn about formalizing their own social cleansing programs.
It took eighty-six years from the 14th Amendment until Brown vs. the Board of Education abolished segregation in schools and another ten before the Civil Rights Act gave deeper protections.
The Civil Rights Act and Class Status (1964)
One legal legacy from the Civil Rights Act is “Class Status,” which defines a group and enables the government to establish protections for the members. These applied to race, color, religion, national origin, sex…but not to people with disabilities. It wasn’t until 1973, 105 years after the 14th Amendment, that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act required equal treatment of people with disabilities – but only for federally-funded programs. So for two decades after the Civil Rights Act, people with disabilities could still be legally marginalized. It wasn’t until 1988 that the Fair Housing Amendments Act established people with disabilities as a protected class, and laid the foundation for the ADA.
The ADA (1990) – Universal Design (TheFuture) Because Separate is Not Equal
This photo of people with disabilities protesting against inaccessible public transportation is one of my favorites, where one protestor’s sign reads “I can’t even get to the back of the bus.” Disability rights protests proliferated, modeled on the Civil Rights Movement. They included sit-ins, building occupations, marches, and people chaining themselves to buses as they demanded equal treatment. This highlights the Separate But Equal concept that the Supreme Court under Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1896 said was ‘good enough.’ Separate But Equal allowed the Jim Crow laws that formalized segregation until 1954, when Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated schools. And to think I attended Holmes High School in Texas without knowing this. Ugh.
Unfortunately, the Separate But Equal concept sowed the idea that is still in many people’s minds today in the building professions: that a ramp on the side of a building, or a separate accessible restroom is fine; that people should be thankful to get into buildings at all and not complain about how that happens.
We all know that winning civil rights protections doesn’t mean equality has been won. Similarly, rights for people with disabilities didn’t arrive with Section 504 or the ADA – equal employment, opportunities to use public transportation and equal facilities in buildings are not yet fully achieved.
For that, we need to wake up to the reality that changes in ability are part of a human life, and that crudely applied bare minimums are actually poor design. Instead, let’s strive for universal design as the ideal, and together we’ll create an environment that is elegantly human and fundamentally just.