Influenced by the civil and human rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s, people with disabilities began to fight for their rights for recognition as people first, with their disability considered second. With the global average that 80% of all people will experience disability at some time in their lives, the fight for disability rights is the right to life for all. No other culture or lifestyle can claim that they are immune to the possibility of being disabled. Disability knows no race, creed, religion, economic or social status to keep someone from joining the ranks. All that is required is to be human and fallible. Disability by accidents makes up 70% of the disabled. Disease and congenital birth defects make up the rest. People with disabilities, or as the term of the 1960s-80s "handicappers", fought for greater acceptance of difference, and the freedoms and equalities that are a right for all people. But words without action have little meaning.
Helen Keller was an "activist" for the disabled before it became popular. Being somewhat a celebrity, Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, was keen to promote Helen. One of the numerous articles on her that he wrote said of Helen that "she is a phenomenon". These articles led to a wave of publicity about Helen with pictures of her reading Shakespeare or stroking her dog appearing in national newspapers.
Helen had become famous, visiting Alexander Graham Bell, and President Cleveland at the White House. By 1890 she was living at the Perkins Institute and being taught by Anne Sullivan. In March of that year Helen met Mary Swift Lamson, who over the coming year was to try and teach Helen to speak. This was something that Helen desperately wanted. Although she learned to understand what somebody else was saying by touching their lips and throat, her efforts to speak herself proved at this stage to be unsuccessful. This was later attributed to the fact that Helen's vocal chords were not properly trained prior to her being taught to speak.
In 1894, Helen and Anne met John D. Wright and Dr. Thomas Humason who were planning to set up a school to teach speech to the deaf in New York City. Helen and Anne were very excited by this and the assurances of the two men that Helen's speech could be improved excited them further. Helen thus agreed to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf.
Unfortunately though, Helen's speech never really improved beyond the sounds that only Anne and others very close to her could understand.
Helen moved on to the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in 1896 and in the Autumn of 1900 entered Radcliffe College, becoming the first deaf-blind person to have ever enrolled at an institution of higher learning.
Life at Radcliffe was very difficult for Helen and Anne, and the huge amount of work involved led to deterioration in Anne's eyesight. During their time at the College Helen began to write about her life. She would write the story both in Braille and on a normal typewriter. It was at this time that Helen and Anne met with John Albert Macy who was to help edit Helen's first book "The Story of My Life" which was published in 1903 and although it sold poorly at first it has since become a classic.
On June 28, 1904 Helen graduated from Radcliffe College, becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
John Macy became good friends with Helen and Anne, and in May 1905 John and Anne were married. Anne's name changed to Anne Sullivan Macy. The three lived together in Wrentham, Massachusetts, and during this time Helen wrote "The World I Live In", revealing for the first time her thoughts on her world. It was also during this time that John Macy introduced her to a new and revolutionary way of viewing the world. In 1909 Helen became a member of the Socialist Party of Massachusetts.
In 1913 "Out of the Dark" was published. This was a series of essays on socialism, and its impact on Helen's public image was immense. Everyone now knew Helen's political views. 11
Helen Keller graduates from Radcliffe, 1904
In 1956, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas court ruled that, "separate but equal" segregated schools violated the 14th amendment to the Constitution. This landmark decision had a profound effect on the Civil Rights of blacks, and was the jump-off point for disabled students to be allowed to go to "mainstream" schools. For decades disabled children where shuffled off to "special" schools, whether they needed to attend them or not. Physically disabled students were thought to have different learning skills, if any at all, and every effort was made to segregate them into schools that were based partially on medical care.
In many ways this was a double-edged sword. For the deaf and blind, schools that cater to their needs is essential. Same can be said for the severely disabled and mentally handicapped. It took years of lobbying and legislative pressure to receive the Federal funding to create programs for children society previously deemed "uneducable". But with this hard-fought recognition came the reasoning that ALL disabled children should be segregated.
This segregation was unacceptable to many children and teenagers who wished to be included in ordinary life. The social skills needed to interact with able-bodied people were limited to the disabled's family and teachers. Once they reached adulthood, few had the means, financially or emotionally, to deal with the non-disabled world. Children who went to segregated schools were not used to the stares, comments, or outright rudeness of the general public. The instantaneous pity took them by surprise. Not seeing themselves as objects of pity, most were confused and angry at such treatment.
In 1964, Ed Roberts (1935-1995), a post-polio quadriplegic, entered the University of California at Berkley and effectively began the Disability Rights Movement. With the support of his organizer mom, Zona, Ed fought for the university and the State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to be allowed to enroll. He got the press on his side, championing his cause. When Ed won the battle to become a student, a local newspaper carried the headline "Hopeless Cripple Goes to School".1
Ed Roberts, photo by Lydia Gans
Ed Roberts was an internationally recognized leader in the Independent Living/Civil Rights for People with Disabilities movement, and President of the World Institute on Disability, a public policy organization that promotes the inclusion of all people with disabilities into the mainstream of life.
Ed received his B.A. and M.A. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. His work led UC Berkeley, in 1970, to be the first University to have a Disabled Students Program funded by the federal government.
Ed Roberts was a pioneer:
Ed Roberts was a man of extraordinary warmth, optimism, vision and humor. He encouraged all to take risks so that positive and creative action could improve all lives, whether temporarily able-bodied (affectionately called TAB) or people with disabilities. He improved the lives of millions of people. 8
Of course Ed Roberts wasn't the only activist of the Disability Movement.The 70s and 80s brought out many changes, and the people behind these changes proved that all disabled are created equal and wanted equal treatment by law. The term "Better Off Dead", sprouting in the early 20th century at the death of another baby at the hand of Dr. Haiselden, was now being actively fought in and out of court. More people with severe disabilities were fighting to be removed from nursing homes and institutions and be allowed to live on their own. Legislative arguments for funding for Personal Care Assistants (PCA's) were being waged in Washington and in nearly every State.
Major legislation was passed in 1968 known as the Architectural Barriers Act. This legislation changed the physical world for the mobility impaired. Removing architectural barriers, such as stairs, narrow doorways, and installing ramps and elevators, opened up the world to millions who had been essentially homebound. The beginnings of universal design had made its way into law, and the face of the US literally changed forever. In 1973 an addition to the ABA was made, adding legislation to include older structures and defining guidelines for disabled renovations. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 encompassed the ABA, and gave more power to activists groups to take legal action against building owners who refused to made disabled adaptations.
This legislation lead to a new language - disability advocacy. Within this, the acknowledgement of disabled culture began to form.
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© 2003 Barbara J. McKee