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Disability Rights Movement

A transformative advance in the recognition and realization of human rights burst forth in the U.S. in the early 1970s when disability advocates began using the legal system to challenge striking, blatant injustices to people with disabilities. Their heroic efforts led to unprecedented victories and spawned what came to be known as the Disability Rights Movement. While I was in law school in 1971, a chance conversation with a friend prompted me to try to start a student advocacy project relating to residents of mental hospitals. A chain of circumstances led to my becoming involved in the founding of a new agency named the National Center for Law and the Handicapped (NCLH) – the first national advocacy center for disability rights. The story of the establishment of NCLH, and how I went to work there after law school provides background to my subsequent career path. The fledgling disability legal rights movement that I became part of once I joined the staff, and the progress of disability rights advocacy in the 70s and into the mid-1980s, in part against the backdrop of my work at the Developmental Disabilities Law Project and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, will be chronicled.

The stars of this era were the amazing individuals with disabilities, parents, attorneys, judges, disability organizations, educators and disability professionals, journalists, sympathetic government officials, civil rights leaders, and many others, who forged a movement bent on challenging and eliminating discrimination on the basis of disability. They zealously pursued the goal of equality and justice for people with disabilities in the courts, state and federal legislatures, media, and at times in the streets. Such efforts yielded considerable consciousness-raising, inspired protests and demonstrations, produced a spate of favorable court decisions, and prompted the enactment of many state and federal laws, ultimately leading to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Landmark Cases in Early 70s

Three landmark federal court decisions in 1971 and 1972, in lawsuits known as “the P.A.R.C. case,” “the Mills case,” and “the Wyatt case,” sparked a wave of disability rights activism, leading to an avalanche of legal actions around the country. Details about the origins of the three cases, the plaintiffs and advocates who brought them, the expert witnesses who supported them, the circumstances that led them to succeed, and the immediate and longer term consequences of the decisions will be presented.

Plight of People with Disabilities at the Beginning of the 70s

The origins of the disability rights movement can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the atrocious status of people with disabilities in our society before the movement’s inception. A condensed overview of the prejudice and discrimination faced by those having a condition viewed as a disability as of the beginning of the 1970s will be presented. Problem areas were widespread, including public education, transportation, housing, access to buildings and facilities, confinement in inhumane and unsafe residential treatment facilities, involuntary sterilizations, access to the courts, denial of medical treatment, even the right to travel on public streets and sidewalks, and many others.

The National Center for Law and the Handicapped (NCLH)

Robert Burgdorf as a young lawyerHow NCLH came to be, from the germ of some law students’ idea to a formal funding proposal, to some political chicanery by a U.S. Congressman, to its official opening for business on September 1, 1972, is an important milepost in the Disability Rights Movement. The attorneys and legal interns who worked at the Center and the innovative and effective work they did in establishing and defending the legal rights of people with disabilities will be described. I will discuss the powerful precedent set in a case (In re G. H.), in which I had the honor to represent a young woman with severe physical disabilities before the Supreme Court of North Dakota and managed to win a judicial victory that was the first decision by the highest court of any state recognizing the constitutional right of children with disabilities to equal educational opportunities in the public schools. In addition to a number of court actions, I will describe several major documents that staff attorneys produced; notable among these were a landmark law review article I co-wrote with Marcia Pearce Burgdorf in which we compiled an extensive “History of Unequal Treatment” that people with disabilities had been subjected to in America, and a paper I wrote titled “The Legal Rights of Handicapped Persons” that presented what, though I did not call it that, is believed to be the first-ever “Bill of Rights” for persons with disabilities. Also to be described is the story of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, that was the most important federal statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability prior to the ADA.

The Developmental Disabilities Law Project (1976 to 1982)

During my years with the Developmental Disabilities Law Project at the University of Maryland School of Law, I continued litigation and scholarship activities, and ran a major federal project coordinating legal advocacy programs nationally. We were an intrepid band of attorneys undertaking all sorts of legal activities to promote the rights of people with disabilities, including major victories in which we were involved in convincing a U.S. Court of Appeals to uphold the right of a blind teacher to teach in the public schools, and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to establish appropriate standards for ensuring life-saving medical services to persons with severe intellectual disabilities unable to make medical decisions on their own behalf. The story of my representation of a client with multiple sclerosis, whose lawsuit challenging job discrimination provided an object lesson on why a law like the ADA was sorely needed, is told in a section titled “There Oughta’ Be a Law: The Bob Brunner Story.” In addition, I will tell how I came to write an influential article on forced sterilization of individuals with disabilities, and to be the principal author and general editor of the first law school casebook on the subject of disability rights. An account of the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals, a massive, direct information-gathering and collaboration effort regarding the status and views of people with disabilities that culminated in a gathering in May 1977 of some 3,700 delegates from all over the country, will be featured.

The Civil Rights Commission (1982-1985)

When Congress gave the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights new jurisdiction over discrimination on the basis of disability in 1978, the Commission went looking for an expert on the subject. A call to the librarian at the Harvard Law Library who knew of my casebook led Commission staff to me. My taking a job in the General Counsel’s Office at the Commission, and working on a ground-breaking report on disability discrimination – Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities was pivotal. An explanation of important disability concepts, attitudes, facts, and laws will be presented. After the report was issued, my co-author and I were motivated to write a Statutory Blueprint advising what an effective federal law prohibiting disability discrimination should contain. I gained a lot of firsthand knowledge about the reality of inaccessibility when I began dating a dynamic woman (a disability rights lawyer and scuba diver) who used a wheelchair; we had terrible experiences with inaccessibility at Ford’s Theater and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which prompted me to write a reproaching article in the Washington Post, and led her to file a formal civil rights complaint.