Disability Rights: Activism and Agency in the United States
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Disability rights has a complex history of social movements and legal change. This thesis spans from the American Civil War to the present day; I examine the effects of legislation that outlawed public displays of disability or ugliness to the success of the disability rights movement. It analyzes the development of disability rights law in three time periods in United States history: the post-Civil War era, the passing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It begins with statutes called the Ugly Laws that targeted low-income disabled people, typically veterans, who were begging on the street, as well as people at the intersections of disability, race, class, gender, and other marginalized social categories. The ideology and opinion that disability was unacceptable in the public eye excluded people with disabilities from everyday life including education, religious services, public transportation, commercial establishments, and participation in political processes with autonomy and dignity. I transition from the Ugly Laws to a period of identity formation and movement cohesion around the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, discussing the movement's motivations and goals, and my parameters for its success. The next time period I analyze leads to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the ways that despite anti-discrimination and civil rights legislation, the ideology of the Ugly Laws continues to permeate American society and limit accessibility. I use a disability justice framework to analyze how an inaccessible built environment, including transportation systems, educational facilities, and government buildings, influenced the disability rights movement that fought for the passage of Section 504 and the ADA. A disability justice framework advocates for the existence and inclusion of people with disabilities in all parts of society without advocating for a cure. These connections between the built environment, the disability rights movement, and disability rights law provide new context and nuance to the systemic overlooking of disability access needs by using a procedural analysis on an extended historical era to evaluate how politics and social movements continue to influence disability rights in the United States.
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