The Civil Rights of Americans with Disabilities: Judicial & Legislative Victories

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  • 0:06 The Civil Rights of…
  • 0:28 History
  • 3:06 Americans with…
  • 4:59 Modern Times
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will review the timeline of the civil rights of Americans with disabilities. We will take a closer look at the background of the rights, what they include and what they mean to society today.

The Civil Rights of Americans with Disabilities

Civil rights are considered the basic rights that all citizens of a society have. Not all individuals in the United States have always had their basic civil rights protected, such as individuals with disabilities who didn't always have the same rights and opportunities as those without disabilities.


The movement for Americans with disabilities began in the mid-1900s, inspired by the success of the women and African-American civil rights movements. The movement gained speed when different sections of individuals with disabilities all united for the common cause. A big spur for the movement was because of physical barriers. During this era, the buildings that we would enter into only had stairs, walkways weren't always cleared and there were not always large hallways. This created a significant number of physical barriers for people with visual, physical or hearing disabilities.

Researchers and doctors began a study at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus in 1946. This study was called ANSI A117.1 and provided the proof that barriers existed for the physically handicapped and contained a standard plan for modifying programs and the physical site to provide independence for people with disabilities. This standard has since been utilized all over the world. It resulted in the creation of The Architectural Barriers Act, which was passed in 1968, which mandated federally constructed buildings and facilities to be accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Soon after, there was a flurry of legislation that protected Americans with disabilities and their rights. The Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973 and had the effect of prohibiting discrimination in federal services and programs and any programming that receives federal funds.

You may have heard of one section of this Act - Section 504. This section reads, 'No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States… shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.' This section famously became the first civil rights law that promised equal protection under the law for Americans with disabilities!

Americans with Disabilities Act

There were many protests from the 1960s through the 1990s in support of increased rights for individuals with disabilities. There were sit-ins that were held to protest lack of accessibility for people with disabilities on public transit (one example of an accommodation that would later be added on for physically disabled would be a lift for wheelchairs on a public bus) and lack of representation of individuals with disabilities in the legislature or higher education. These protests were successful, and in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law.

The Act, modeled after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, is considered one of the most inclusive civil rights legislations for Americans with disabilities in U.S. history. The Act mandated that local, state and federal governments and programs be accessible, that employers with 15 or more employees make 'reasonable accommodations' for workers with disabilities and not discriminate against otherwise qualified workers with disabilities.

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