History of Disability

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Ancient Times

Disabilities have always been a part of life, but the lives of individuals with disabilities have not always been valued. In Ancient times, children with disabilities were scorned, publicly persecuted and abandoned by their parents. Individuals with disabilities were referred to as “idiots” and “fools” and often used as “court jesters”for amusement. Christianity improved the way persons with disabilities treated and increased compassionate care for those who were “lame, blind and otherwise disabled”.

A Credo for Support by By Norman Kunc & Emma Van der Klift


1800’s in America

Living conditions for individuals with disabilities in the 1800’s were especially harsh as they were often forced to live in “poorhouses” in squalid, crowded conditions. By the middle of the 19th century, society became more aware of the horrible living conditions and Congress set aside land and money to build housing specifically for individuals with disabilities.


During this time, the number of people in public institutions continued to rise. In 1890 there were approximately 250 persons per institution and 15 years later there were over 500 per institution. In 1900, there were about 10 private institutions for persons with disabilities and by 1923, there were 80. Overcrowding of these institutions worsened as the 20th century proceeded.

1950s, 60s, and 70’s

During the early 50’s, a few groups of parents, scattered across the United States began to organize and demand services for their children. As the parent movement grew, conditions improved in state institutions and community services, education and employment opportunities were created. Rosemary Kennedy, whose brother was President John F. Kennedy, inspired him to launch the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation and devise a “plan to combat mental retardation”. Parent organizations filed lawsuits forcing states to recognize the civil and legal rights of their children to education and other appropriate services.

Find out more about President’s Panel on Mental Retardation.

Find out more about the History of Special Olympics.

1980s – Present

Inspired by the civil rights groups of the 1960’s, this period saw the formation of local, state, and national self-advocacy groups. Self-advocates have been responsible for the redefining of disability – claiming that it is less about rehabilitation and more about equality. The issues they pursue include closing institutions, improving living conditions, changing stereotypes of disability, protecting people with disabilities in the criminal justice system, real jobs with real pay, accessing healthcare and creating real communities.

Find out more about Disability History

Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project.
Four-hour documentary radio series about the shared experience of people with disabilities and their families since the beginning of the 19th century.

Center for Human Policy – Disability Studies for Teachers.
Lesson plans and materials designed to help teachers integrate disability studies into social studies, history, literature and related subjects in grades 6-12.

The Disability History Museum
This virtual museum has a searchable digital collection of documents and images related to disability history in the United States.

Partners in Time
Take the online partnersinpolicymaking.com course on the history of disability.

Disability History Timeline
This guide features examples of the diversity, creativity, and leadership that have shaped the disability community and American culture.