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A Journey Through History: The Evolution of Disability and Independent Living


In our quest for a more inclusive and accessible world, it's essential to understand the history that has led us to the present. As an Accessibility Specialist, I find that exploring the past provides valuable insights into the challenges and victories of the disability community. Join me on a journey through time as we explore the evolution of disability and the emergence of Independent Living.

Module One: A Brief History of Disability

Our journey begins with a look back at the treatment and perceptions of people with disabilities in Western culture. The early American colonies, for instance, did not admit people with disabilities, fearing they would require financial support. These colonial attitudes set the stage for years of exclusion and discrimination.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress promised pensions to disabled soldiers, marking a shift in attitude. This era also saw the development of medical techniques that saved lives, laying the foundation for modern medicine.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, disability was often considered the will of God, with religion encouraging compassion and pity. Living conditions were harsh, especially for those with disabilities, who were often placed in "poor houses."

Changing Tides: The Early 20th Century

The early 1900s marked a turning point with World War I. Thousands of returning veterans with disabilities spurred changes in attitudes and government support. Legislation like the Smith-Hughes Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation Act and the Smith-Fess Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act aimed to assist disabled veterans and civilians in finding employment.

Organizations focusing on specific disability groups began to form, although most were initially led by individuals without disabilities. The League of the Physically Handicapped, founded in New York, was one of the first instances where people with disabilities organized themselves to combat prejudice and discrimination.

Emergence of the Disability Rights Movement

The mid-20th century brought significant changes. The Social Security Act was amended to provide Social Security Disability Insurance. Brown v. Board of Education set a precedent for challenging segregated education for children with disabilities.

Gini Laurie, often called the Grandmother of Independent Living, became an editor, advocating for disability rights and independent living. These developments laid the foundation for the Independent Living Movement and the Disability Rights Movement.

Looking Forward

Our journey through history provides a clear picture of the challenges faced by people with disabilities and the progress that has been made. As we move forward, it's crucial to remember that disability rights are human rights. The struggles and triumphs of the past continue to shape our efforts to create a more inclusive and accessible world.

In upcoming blog posts, we'll delve deeper into the Independent Living Movement and the Disability Rights Movement, exploring how they have shaped the present and continue to drive advocacy efforts. Stay tuned for more insights into this important journey.


The history of disability is a testament to the resilience and determination of individuals with disabilities and their allies. By understanding this history, we gain a deeper appreciation for the progress made and a clearer vision of the work that lies ahead. Disability rights are an integral part of human rights, and our journey towards a more accessible and inclusive world continues.

Jensen Caraballo written in cursive. This is my official logo.

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