The History of National Disability Awareness Month

Photo by Vicky Hladynets on Unsplash

As someone who grew up with a temporary developmental disorder and had to deal with the challenges that came with it, I wanted to understand the significance of this year’s National Disability Awareness Month. The month of March is devoted to recognizing the difficulties that people with disabilities face, and to understand the significance, it is essential to look back at the history of disability rights. There are currently about 48.9 million people with disabilities in the United States; unfortunately, only 35% are employed. From the 1800s to the 1950s, disabled people in industrial areas were often subjected to harsh living conditions. Those who were poor were placed in “aim houses,” while wealthier individuals would live with their parents. Disabled individuals were often ostracized by their townspeople, with many hurling ableist slurs or even throwing them onto carts to be sent away.

In the 1920s, Jean Esquirol divided intellectual deficiency into idiocy and imbecility. The latter referred to well-mannered people who were organized, while the former referred to individuals who could barely function and had no regard for the present. This study later justified using “Eugenics,” which aimed to eradicate or convert people with disabilities. However, this approach only led to increased mental and physical health problems.

Thankfully, there were pioneers in the disability movement who fought for equality. Dorothea Dix, a teacher, worked to create a safe institution for people with mental health problems. She needed permission from Congress to do so, but as a woman, she could not appeal to them due to gender discrimination. Sam Howe, one of the few social reformers who believed in the power and capabilities of oppressed people, helped her with the appeal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president with a disability, which he initially tried to conceal but eventually accepted. This helped bring attention to the struggles faced by people with disabilities. Eduoard Seguin believed that people with disabilities had different cognitive wiring that could be improved through motor and sensor training. He is considered the father of disability studies, and his teaching techniques became the basis for therapy. Maria Montessori was the first to utilize this method, which involved running schools based on students’ interests and allowing them to acquire material naturally.

During World Wars I and II and the rise of social movements, more legislation was passed for disabled people. In 1945, Congress enacted the law “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1950, disabled veterans wrote the National Standards for Barrier-Free Buildings. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited federal agencies from discriminating against workers based on their disabilities. In 1987, President Reagan signed Proclamation 5613 to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to fulfill their lives. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to support independent living and provide loans to disabled students pursuing higher education.

Despite these significant strides, much work still needs to be done to achieve equality for people with disabilities. For example, there are loopholes in the ADA, and many disabled individuals struggle to access medical care and job opportunities. National Disability Awareness Month has a different theme each year, and this year’s theme is “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.” The official color for Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month is orange, representing vitality and optimism. By talking about disability rights, making spaces accessible, and understanding the needs of people with disabilities, we can contribute to the movement for equality.

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