In 1945, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Law 176, creating National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. This was the first step in the right direction for rights for people with disabilities. In a time when many disabled Americans were being marginalized, President Truman pushed employers to recognize an under-utilized segment of the population and to take a chance on those who were looking for a break.
In 1962, the word “Physically” was removed to acknowledge both the needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. Small steps continued to be made, and in the ensuing years those small steps became larger.
Despite the forward progress, there were still many obstacles for people with disabilites to overcome, some physical (like access to buildings), some abstract (like attitudes and perceptions). It’s difficult to change people, to make them see and act outside their comfort zone. Sometimes it takes an act of Congress to force change.
This is what today’s blog post is about: The push for change. When President Richard M. Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, he opened the door for millions of Americans who had been knocking persistently, wanting to be treated the same as everyone else. Recognized as the first real piece of legislation for disability rights, the Rehabilitation Act contains one line in Section 504, near the end of the document, that states, “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.”
It may not seem like much, but this line paved the way for future legislation and court rulings that created a level playing field for everyone. In 1977, after demonstrations in 10 U.S. cities and a sit in at the San Francisco Office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Section 504 regulations were issued. These regulations set rules for implementing the law.
With the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 by President George W. Bush, Section 504 rules were extended to the private sector, requiring all employers, businesses, and organizations to recognize the rights of the disabled.
It’s been a long, hard road, but progress continues to be made. It’s fitting that the 40th anniversary of this important piece of legislation falls a few days before the start of Disability Awareness Month. Let’s make sure that the fight continues, so everyone can be treated fairly and have a chance to capture the American Dream.