All struggles for rights and justice are inextricably intertwined. Centering the connection between racial justice and disability justice is essential to continuing to push for equitable access and rights in both movements.
The history of the disability rights movement is inseparable from the civil rights movement, both of which strive for equality, justice, and inclusion for marginalized communities. Inspired by the progress made by Black people in their fight against discrimination, the disability rights movement emerged to advocate for the specific needs of people with disabilities. Influenced by the civil rights movement, disability rights activists employed similar tactics, like sit-ins, to protest the unequal treatment of and lack of accessibility for people with disabilities.
Of the connection between the two movements, Disability Rights Michigan noted, “If it weren’t for the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement, and resulting civil rights protections for individuals with disabilities, would probably never have existed. The civil rights movement inspired individuals with disabilities to fight against segregation and for full inclusion under the law. Public institutions would often segregate or exclude people with disabilities from participation in public education, employment, or in using public services, such as public transportation. They took their cues for how to advocate for themselves from Black civil rights activists, many of whom had disabilities themselves.”
Although people with disabilities have long fought for accessibility and rights, the disability rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by the principles and strategies of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Activists, like Judy Heumann and Ed Roberts, were influenced by the power of collective action, peaceful protest, and civil disobedience to challenge the systemic barriers that excluded individuals with disabilities. They recognized that the barriers people with disabilities faced were not individual problems but rather, a consequence of systemic prejudice and environments created without consideration of disability.
The disability rights movement in the United States won several key victories that improved the lives of people with disabilities. Perhaps most famously, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, largely due to the movement’s advocacy and organizing efforts. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment, public services, business interactions, transportation, telecommunications, and more. It also set new standards for accessibility, making public spaces, buildings, and services more inclusive. The ADA remains a cornerstone of disability rights legislation and has transformed the lives of millions of Americans by ensuring equal rights and opportunities.
Another milestone in the movement is the 1999 Supreme Court case, Olmstead v. L.C. The Court’s holding affirmed the right of individuals with disabilities to live in community settings rather than being unnecessarily institutionalized. A landmark decision, it emphasized the importance of community-based services and support as an alternative to segregation and institutionalization. Most importantly, Olmstead reinforced the principle that people with disabilities have the right to participate fully in society and receive the support necessary to lead independent lives.
Like other social justice movements, the disability rights movement was not always inclusive of people with other marginalized identities, including people of color. According to disability rights scholar and University of Richmond Professor Jennifer Erkulwater, some “ … activists in the 1970s fear[ed] that assertions of racial identity would divide people with disabilities from one another,” which often led to exclusion of members of communities of color. However, even in the face of these hurdles, many Black activists had a significant influence on the disability rights movement — but are too often left out of disability history.
An influential disability rights activist, Johnnie Lacy played a key role in the founding of the first Center for Independent Living (CIL), in Berkeley, California. Lacy, who used a wheelchair after contracting polio as a teenager, faced discrimination when she applied to study speech therapy at San Francisco State University. Despite resistance from the department head, Lacy advocated for her rights, highlighting the injustice of discrimination based on her gender, race, or disability. Lacy’s college experience motivated her to become a disability rights activist. As a Black woman with a disability, Lacy faced exclusion from multiple advocacy communities. Nevertheless, she remained determined to educate and serve as a role model, relentlessly advocating for an intersectional approach to race and disability and dedicating her career to the independent living movement.
Other overlooked leaders include Brad Lomax and Chuck Jackson, two Black disability activists. In early April 1977, disability rights advocates staged a 28-day protest known as the “504 Sit-In” at a federal building in San Francisco to draw attention to the lack of government action on disability discrimination and to demand the finalization of administrative regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which would allow for its reliable and robust implementation. Section 504, passed in 1973, was the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities, according to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. It ensures that individuals with disabilities receive equal access to programs and activities receiving federal funding, prohibiting discrimination based on disability in the United States.
Lomax and Jackson participated in the sit-in, as well as mobilized their community to provide hot meals for their fellow protesters. Together with other activists, they also traveled to Washington, D.C. to increase pressure on the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to issue the regulations. The activists’ advocacy helped persuade the Carter administration to put these regulations into place on April 28, 1977, finally allowing the anti-discrimination law to have consistent enforcement guidelines and providing much-needed protections for disabled people.
Through their activism, leadership, and innovative contributions, Black disabled leaders like Lacy, Lomax, and Jackson, among many others, made lasting impacts on the disability rights movement. Their efforts and dedication helped shape the landscape of disability rights, fostered awareness and acceptance, and advanced the causes of equality and inclusion for disabled people.
The shared struggle for equality faced by people with disabilities and people of color persists today. Individuals with disabilities, particularly those from other marginalized communities, experience compounded discrimination and exclusion due to their disability and race, religion, and more. They encounter significant barriers in healthcare, education, employment, and access to public spaces. Black people with disabilities are also disproportionately incarcerated, experience higher rates of poverty than other racial groups, and are at higher risk of violence and abuse.
People of color with disabilities also face heightened threats to their voting rights. For example, the Legal Defense Fund is currently challenging a Texas law, S.B. 1, that greatly restricts access to voting, making it harder for Texans to vote, particularly Black and Latinx voters and voters with disabilities.
As LDF’s press release announcing the Sept. 7, 2021 filing outlined, in addition to arguing that the law violates multiple constitutional amendments and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by “intentionally targeting and burdening methods and means of voting used by voters of color,” it also claims that S.B.1 violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act. S.B.1, the lawsuit argues, “impos[es] voting barriers that will discriminate against voters with disabilities and deny people with disabilities full and equal opportunities to participate in the state’s voting programs,” the press release described.
All of the systemic issues described above are rooted in societal biases, racism, and ableism, leading to the disproportionate exclusion of people of color with disabilities from mainstream narratives and opportunities. The disability rights movement continues its fight to dismantle these barriers and secure equal access and rights for all individuals.
To achieve true equality and justice, it is imperative to address the issues facing people of color with disabilities. This requires a multifaceted approach that includes policy reforms, community engagement, and intersectional advocacy. Efforts should be directed towards dismantling barriers to healthcare, promoting inclusive education, addressing economic disparities, and amplifying the voices of people of color with disabilities in decision-making processes.