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The Rights of the Physically Disabled in America: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

RobertCordrayNot all that long ago in America, people with physical disabilities were seen as second-class citizens. While the non-disabled sympathized with their plight, the main consensus was that if physically “handicapped” people wanted to function in the real world, it was they who would need to adjust. Society was not going to go out of its way to accommodate their special needs.

Fortunately, circumstances for those with physically disabilities have improved dramatically over the past several decades. Societal adaptation and technological advancements have empowered the physically challenged to live more normal and fulfilling lives through greater mobility and access. But that change didn’t happen overnight. Here’s a brief look at where we’ve been and hopefully where we’re headed in terms of the rights of disabled people in America.

Smith-Fess Vocational Rehabilitation Act

In the early part of the 20th century, people with physical disabilities lived lives of social and physical isolation, not only due to their inability to get around on their own but also out of fear of public ridicule. Then came the end of World War I, and the return of soldiers who faced dire futures due to physically incapacitating war injuries. Congress came to the aid of disabled soldiers by enacting the Smith-Fess Vocational Rehabilitation Act, an act that was amended after each successive war to better reflect changes in public perceptions of people with disabilities and to encompass new treatments and rehabilitation protocols. Although initially designed to come to the aid of veterans, civilians also came to benefit from the act as well.

The FDR administration

With Franklin Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932, physical disability gained a prominent new address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At a time when most Americans looked down on the disabled, Roosevelt, who despite being crippled by polio, helped to change public perceptions by showing that those with disabilities can lead full and productive lives despite their limitations.

Polio and the D.H.E.W.

Through Roosevelt, Americans came face-to-face with polio. And the great polio epidemics of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s also made physical disability of civilians more visible to the public as people from all walks of life fell victim to the crippling disease. In 1954, the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was created to better address and meet the rehabilitative needs of all Americans. Although no legislation had yet been enacted to make buildings more accessible to the disabled, clearly the public’s attitudes and perceptions towards those with disabilities were changing for the better .

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

In 1961, the American National Standards Institute published and distributed a new standard for “Making Building Accessible to and Useable by the Physically Handicapped.” Hailed for setting standards that builders could look to for making buildings friendlier to disabled people, the ANSI standard failed to be adopted, as doing so by builders was strictly voluntary. Four years later, the government got serious by establishing the National Commission on Architectural Barriers, an organization that after three years of study issued a report directing attention to the prevalence of physical barriers and called for their removal. It was the commission’s conclusion that, “the greatest single obstacle to employment for the handicapped is the physical design of buildings and facilities they must use.”

1960’s Civil Rights Movement

During the period of racial unrest that gave rise to the civil rights movement, the movement to recognize the rights of other minorities, such as those with physical disabilities, was also born. Gaining momentum over the years, the movement gave rise to other legislation, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—which finally gained teeth in terms of government enforcement through a 1978 amendment—and has helped steer America towards present-day practices and policies, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act. That landmark legislation has at last given those with physical disabilities the hope of leading full and productive lives.

With advances in technology, the future is looking even brighter for the physically challenged. New discoveries in prosthetics, robotics and other related fields are allowing people with disabilities to walk, run, drive automobiles, join the workforce, and participate in other normal tasks that were once considered impossible. Perhaps someday in the not too distant future, words like “disabled” and “physically-disadvantaged” will fall out of favor, as the subset of people they once described will no longer exist in the real world.

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Posted by Robert Cordray on April 2nd, 2014 in Career, Health, New Directions | 0 comments Read related posts in , , , , ,

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