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6 Influential Moments in the Disability Employment Movement

January 16, 2018

The United States has come a long way to promoting and advancing employment opportunities for people with disabilities—but many of the milestones along the way wouldn’t have happened without the contributions of some key, influential people.

Here are six of those singular, impactful moments in the disability employment movement.

Judy Heumann Fights to Teach (1970)

A disability activist you need to know about it Judy Heumann. It all started for her when the New York City Board of Education denied her the ability to teach due to her polio. Even before then, she faced discrimination when she was refused into elementary school until fourth grade as she was deemed a “fire hazard.”

After the board of education refused to let her teach, Judy and several of her friends with disabilities formed Disabled in Action. The goal of the organization was to fight for better protections for the community under civil rights laws.

Judy’s activism didn’t stop there. She would go on to take up a role in the Senate committee on labor and public welfare in 1974, and in 1983 she co-founded the World Institute on Disabilities. These are only a few of the organizations she served on. Judy’s lifelong passion and commitment to her community can’t be overlooked. 

Discrimination Becomes Illegal (1973)

In 1973, the nation took one of the first steps in providing better protections for the disability community. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed. This section protects the rights of people with disabilities by prohibiting disability-based discrimination from recipients who receive federal financial assistance.

In other words, if an organization receives funds from the federal government, it has no authority to discriminate against people with disabilities from participating in any federal program or activity. Examples of this include school districts, colleges, day care centers, nursing homes, or public welfare offices.

Harilyn Rousso Represents Women with Disabilities (1980s)

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) often receives the spotlight for memorable moments in the disability rights movement, there are many individuals who helped generate the awareness and momentum needed to bring the ADA into fruition. One such person is Harilyn Rousso.

Harilyn Rousso’s path to becoming a disability activist began when she was discouraged from pursuing a psychotherapy degree from a training institute due to her cerebral palsy. Since then, she’s gone on to become an incredible activist for women with disabilities.

In the 1980s, she founded a mentoring program called the Networking Project for Disabled Women and Girls of the YMCA/NYC. Harilyn has also published a memoir, Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back. Her work doesn’t end there either, she’s a past commissioner with the New York City Commission on Human Rights and was the executive producer of an award-winning documentary called Positive Images: Portraits of Women with Disabilities.

Equal Opportunity Expands (1982)

The Expanded Presence Program was formed to help deliver fair employment laws to less represented communities. As a part of the program, seminars were delivered nationwide to help employers understand their roles under the agency’s statutes. Additionally, Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) field offices bolstered the utilization of Voluntary Assistance Programs.

While this wasn’t exclusively geared toward the disability community, it helped bring about a greater understanding of what it meant to be an equal-opportunity employer. Thus, people with disabilities, as well as other underrepresented communities, would face less job-based discrimination.

The Passage of the ADA (1990)

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is now known as the nation’s first sweeping civil rights law addressing the need for the inclusion of people with disabilities. The ADA clearly prohibits employers and public services from discriminating against people with disabilities. With the passage of the ADA, the EEOC has used its enforcement authority in numerous cases to protect the rights of disabled employees.

ADA Takes Effect (1992)

While the ADA was passed in 1990, it didn’t officially get rolled out until two years later, on July 26, 1992. The initial passing of the law was momentous, but this day marked the moment everyone in the disability community received an equal chance for employment.


Sources: HarilynRousso.com, Independence Today, DisabilityHistory.org, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 

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