Graphic: The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement


The disability rights movement asserts that people with disabilities are human beings with inalienable rights and that these rights can only be secured through collective political action. It arises out of the realization that, as historian Paul Longmore has written, "whatever the social setting and whatever the disability, people with disabilities share a common experience of social oppression."

People with disabilities throughout history have been defined as objects of shame, fear, pity, or ridicule. Americans with disabilities have been incarcerated, sometimes for life, in state institutions and nursing homes. As recently as 1979 it was legal for some state governments to sterilize disabled persons against their will. Other laws prohibited people with certain disabilities from marrying, or even from appearing in public.

Social prejudice kept disabled children out of the public schools, and sanctioned discrimination against disabled adults in employment, housing, and public accommodations. This prejudice has been exacerbated for people of color, women, and for members of ethnic and sexual minorities. Although groups and individuals have since the nineteenth century advocated for an end to this oppression, large scale, cross-disability rights activism, encouraged by the examples of the African-American civil rights and women’s rights movements, did not begin until the late 1960s.

The independent living movement has been an important part of this broader movement for disability rights. It is based on the premise that people with even the most severe disabilities should have the choice of living in the community. This can be accomplished through the creation of personal assistance services allowing an individual to manage his or her personal care, to keep a home, to have a job, go to school, worship, and otherwise participate in the life of the community. The independent living movement also advocates for the removal of architectural and transportation barriers that prevent people with disabilities from sharing fully in all aspects of our society.

Although there were earlier experiments with this concept, it wasn’t until 1972 that the first Center for Independent Living was founded by disability activists in Berkeley, California. By the turn of the century there were hundreds of such centers all across the United States, and throughout much of the rest of the world. In the meantime, a series of landmark court decisions, along with sustained advocacy by people with disabilities for legislation such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, and most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, have secured for disabled Americans unprecedented access to their civil rights, and thus to the society around them.

These victories, as significant as they are, have not ended the discrimination or the prejudice. Indeed, the first years of the twenty-first century have seen several high court decisions which have limited the expected scope and effectiveness of disability rights law, while millions of disabled Americans remain locked in poverty, consigned to nursing homes, and frozen out of society. Even so, it is impossible to deny that the disability rights and independent living movements have transformed American society, and any history of American social and political life of the late twentieth century must include reference to the contributions of disability rights and independent living activists.

UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, through its Regional Oral History Office, has recorded and continues to record the stories of individuals who have made significant contributions to the origins and achievements of these movements. The Bancroft Library also collects, preserves, and provides access to the papers of organizations and individuals of importance to the struggles for disability rights and independent living. The collection highlights the broad range of strategies and tactics employed, the diverse experience of the activists involved, and the intersection of disability in America with the issues of race, ethnicity, class, and gender.

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