On July 6, 2000, the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institute opened an exhibit called "The Disability Rights Movement." Launched in conjunction with other national events commemorating the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "the disability rights movement exhibition examined the history of activism by people with disabilities, and by their friends and families, to secure the civil rights guaranteed to all Americans," said exhibition curator Katherine Ott [press release].
Of particular note was the fact that the exhibit was symbolically located next to the Greensboro lunch-counter exhibit, which signifies a major milestone of the African-American civil rights movement. As they strive for equality, inclusion in public affairs, and sometimes the right simply to live, members of both groups have experienced the results of stereotyping by society. As we examine the legal history of disability legislation in this chapter, we will do so in the context of the social guarantees of full participation inherent in a democratic system.
Until the last several decades, discrimination and confinement within institutions have been routine for people with a variety of disabilities and medical conditions, including epilepsy, mental retardation, and various physical impairments. Efforts to secure equal treatment, regardless of disability, have been isolated and largely un-successful in the United States and throughout the world until relatively recently.
In the United States after World War II, large numbers of veterans who were disabled in the war joined the efforts of parents seeking education and independent-living options for their children with disabilities. Their union formed a strong, articulate coalition of citizens seeking equal rights to societal benefits. Groups mounted organized protests and demanded equal opportunity. The Smithsonian exhibit documented how access to information and communication systems through technologies such as telecaptioners, teletypewriter devices for telephones, voice-recognition systems, voice synthesizers, screen readers, and computers is crucial to the success of this important civil rights movement. In addition, these technologies have created unprecedented opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in mainstream activities that support their ability to live independent, productive lives. Educational and professional employment options are greater now than they have ever been.
In order to better understand the ways in which technology enables skill and talent, regardless of disability, consider the following circumstances. In 1964, a young man named James Caldwell mustered out of the United States Navy, where he had served as an officer on submarine duty. Shortly after leaving the service, he received injuries that blinded him and required him to use a wheelchair. He was admitted to the state hospital, informed that he had virtually no rehabilitation options, and advised to reconcile himself to institutional life. Fortunately, Caldwell had a rehabilitation counselor who was informed about emerging technologies to a far greater extent than were the state medical staff. His counselor introduced Caldwell to computer technology, and Caldwell learned to program using punch cards. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Texas and is leading a very independent and successful life. He married, had children, raised a family, and recently retired from an accomplished career with IBM. He serves as Chair of the Texas Governor's Committee for People with Disabilities and was recognized in Washington, DC, with the Handicapped American Presidential Trophy, 1984-1985, for outstanding service to America in improving the lives of disabled people.
This is but one of millions of examples that demonstrate how advances in technology can greatly enhance society's capacity to provide access to education, employment, and other basic rights of citizenship to people with disabilities. It should not be surprising, therefore, that people of all ages with disabilities consider such access to be a right of citizenship their right and that major legislation has helped shape how our nation uses technology to ensure such rights.