The second major landmark of the new disability rights movement was the formation of the group, Disabled In Action (DIA) in New York City, in 1970. Like the independent living centers, DIA sought autonomy for disabled people, but was more explicitly political and organized confrontational protests against discriminatory laws, attitudes, and institutions.
Out of and alongside these two organizations flowed countless springs of disability rights awareness, activism, and organization. This all played a fundamental role in changing the way that society—and most importantly, disabled people themselves—viewed the question of disability. This transformation is best expressed in the articulation of what has come to be known as the social model of disability. In sum, this model explains disability oppression as a phenomenon which limits the self-determination and life opportunities of people with impairments, and which arises primarily from social and political—rather than medical or personal—factors.
In other words, it is not the existence of a physical or mental impairment itself which diminishes one’s life, but rather the systemic unemployment, poverty, discrimination, segregation, etc., imposed upon people with impairments by an inaccessible and unaccommodating society. As Judy Heumann, founder of DIA, put it, “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives—job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”1
The disability rights movement of today can trace its immediate lineage—directly or indirectly—to these 1960s-era progenitors. Yet, it is possible to look even further back in US history to the Depression era of the 1930s, to see the very first emergence of a self-conscious movement for disability rights, organized by disabled people themselves, and promoting a view which closely foreshadows that of the social model.
It goes without saying that the Great Depression that began in 1929 had a devastating impact on the lives of all American workers, with official unemployment rates skyrocketing to 25 percent. But for disabled people the economic crisis hit even harder. One study found that 44 percent of deaf workers who had been employed prior to the crash had lost their jobs by 1935. The overall unemployment rate for disabled people was probably upwards of 80 percent, translating into crushing levels of poverty.2
Finding employment had been extremely difficult for disabled workers even in times of economic prosperity. Industrial capitalism had come to develop a tendency to discard all those whose labor was deemed insufficiently productive or too costly in relation to the amount of profit they could create for an employer.
The years leading up to and during the Great Depression saw a veritable explosion in the popularity of eugenicist ideas among the political, medical, and economic elite of the United States. These ideas posited all disabled people as so much worthless refuse to be cast aside in the “survival of the fittest” struggle that was free-market capitalism. As a consequence, millions of disabled people were subjected to forced institutionalization, sterilization, and/or death at the hands of both private and public officials.
Yet for all its nightmarish features, the 1930s were also marked by a great upsurge in working-class radicalism and resistance against exploitation and oppression. Strikes, occupations, sitdowns, pickets, and demonstrations for jobs, welfare relief, and against evictions, and for many other reasons became commonplace. Millions of workers formed labor unions to protect and extend their rights. Notably, the American Communist Party (CP) also grew during this period into a substantial force on the US left. It ballooned to a membership of approximately eighty thousand, with hundreds of thousands more passing through its ranks.
As a consequence of all this turmoil and struggle, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt had begun implementation of its New Deal program in the mid-1930s. A centerpiece of the New Deal was the creation of millions of federal jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), inaugurated in January of 1935.
Yet even the WPA—as important a victory as it was for the working class—proved to be woefully limited in its scope. Among other flaws, state and federal WPA regulations barred disabled jobseekers from enjoying any of the program’s benefits, categorizing such individuals as “unemployable.” WPA advertisements underlined this point by explicitly stating that “only able-bodied American job-seekers” need apply.
To make matters worse, two additional pieces of New Deal legislation, following on the heels of the WPA, further codified federal discrimination against disabled people. The Social Security Act of August 1935 specifically defined “disability” as “inability to engage in substantial gainful work,” thus precluding anyone receiving any disability insurance from obtaining employment. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage, exempted workers with disabilities from the law’s coverage, thus giving official sanction to the common practice of employing disabled people in “sheltered workshops” where they were paid a mere pittance for their labor.
For one particular group of disabled workers living in New York City, such blatant discrimination on the part of the putatively progressive Roosevelt administration was simply too much to endure passively. On May 29, 1935, six of these individuals presented at the local office of the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB) and demanded equal access to jobs under the new federal relief program. When told they did not qualify, being “unemployable,” they demanded to speak with the ERB director, Oswald Knauth. When Knauth refused, they began a sit-in right then and there, initiating an indefinite occupation of the ERB office.3