Ragged Edge online


The long & sorry history of discrimination against people with disabilities in the United States -- and its likely causes

Sept./Oct. 2000         

man in wheelchair looking up
clear spacer -  hotlink to text of state laws

Fueled by the rising tide of Social Darwinism, the 'science' of eugenics, and the extreme xenophobia of those years, leading medical authorities and others began to portray the 'feebleminded' as a 'menace to society and civilization . . . responsible in large degree for many if not all, of our social problems.' From the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision, City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center
States have historically denied persons with disabilities the right to live in the community.

The forced institutionalization of persons with disabilities reached its peak in the twentieth century. It continues today. Official reports referred to people with disabilities as "defect[s] . . . [that] wounds our citizenry a thousand times more than any plague," as "by-products of unfinished humanity," and as a "blight on mankind" whose mingling with society was "a most baneful evil."

Spurred by the eugenics movement, every state in the country passed laws that singled out people with mental or physical disabilities for institutionalization. . . . . [S]tatutes noted that the disabled were segregated and institutionalized for being a "menace to society," so that "society [may be] relieved from the heavy economic and moral losses arising from the existence at large of these unfortunate persons." . . . .

Many state governments even required their citizenry to assist them in locating and segregating these citizens. Physicians, teachers, and social workers, and even the general public were to report to the government all persons "believed by them to be feeble minded." Some statutes authorized the removal of children with disabilities from their homes, even against the parents' wishes.

The state of Washington made it a crime for a parent to refuse state-ordered institutionalization. Once children were institutionalized, many state laws required parents to waive all custody rights. A 1996 General Accounting Office report revealed "serious quality-of-care deficiencies" in institutions "including injury, illness, physical degeneration, and even death." "Ugly laws," local ordinances that forbid people with "unsightly" or "disgusting" physical conditions from appearing in public . . . were part of the Congressional Record when the ADA was enacted.
              From the Historians' brief to the Supreme Court


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The light-colored type running down the edge is a listing of the hundreds of state statutes, session laws, and constitutional provisions that illustrate pervasive state-sponsored discrimination against persons with disabilities, dating from the late nineteenth century through the time of the ADA's enactment and (in some cases) to the present. To read this list, click here.

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