We are probably all familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This landmark law formally prohibited discrimination against disabled individuals and required businesses make themselves accessible to all. The ADA was for the disabled much like how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin.

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However, you may not be aware of the history leading up to the ADA’s passage. Why did we need the ADA in the first place? Why is access compliance for the disabled so important? This article is a brief overview of the long struggle for disabled rights and access compliance standards in the United States as well as California specifically.

Pre-1900s: Foundations For Access Compliance Laid

You may be surprised to learn that one of the first actions of Congress following American independence was the enactment of a law providing for disabled veterans. On August 26, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that provided half pay for officers and enlisted men, including those on warships and armed vessels, who were disabled in the service of the United States and who were incapable of earning a living.

But the legacy goes even deeper than that! According to geneology.com, “For more than a century before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, British colonies in North America provided pensions for disabled soldiers and sailors. During and after the Revolutionary War…’Disability’ or ‘invalid pensions’ were awarded to servicemen for physical disabilities incurred in the line of duty.”

In 1864, Congress established the first college in the world that was specifically mandated for helping the disabled. This university still exists today and is now known as Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University is the only university in the world where its entire program offerings are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students.

Prior to 1900, there were definitely some advances in helping disabled veterans and providing education for disabled individuals. Unfortunately, this time period was characterized by largely negative attitudes towards the disabled. Many American cities, like San Francisco in 1867, passed ordinances which essentially prohibited disabled people from going out in public without the fear of a fine. Eugenics policies forcibly sterilized thousands of disabled and mentally handicapped people against their will. It would take many years for these laws to be repealed and conditions for the disabled to improve across the board. Several organizations by and for the benefit of the disabled started up in the 1800s. But these disabled advocacy groups rose to much higher prominence in the 1900s.

1910s-1940s: The Battle for Equal Treatment Heats Up

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1950s-1990s: Walls Torn Down

Brown v. Board of Education, while focused on racial segregation, also formally paved the way for disabled children to no longer be denied an education due to their special needs.

1962: Disabled student successfully sued to be admitted to Berkley.

1968: California Legislature made Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) the first such transit system to accommodate disabled passengers.

1973: Rehabilitation Act, precursor to the ADA, was passed. (Discuss some of its provisions here.)