Special Report

26 Landmark Moments for Disability Rights in America

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1963: Community Mental Health Act

Signed by John F. Kennedy, this act focused on transforming how the medical community addressed mental health issues by providing government financing for mental health facilities and research. It is considered to have been a mixed blessing, because while it encouraged deinstitutionalization to the benefit of many, it also left others adrift in communities that had limited abilities to help them.

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1968: Architectural Barriers Act

This established the law that all federal buildings and facilities had to be designed to be accessible. It also applied to non-government facilities that receive federal funding, including everything from office buildings and prisons to national parks and mass transit systems.

Source: By Scan by NYPL / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

1972: Willowbrook State School exposed

This state-supported institution on Staten Island housed as many as 6,000 children with developmental disabilities. Reporter Geraldo Rivera did an expose on its poor conditions in 1972, focusing attention on the school. Eventually, in 1987, it was closed and criticism of the facility led to new legislation protecting those with disabilities.

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1973: Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed

This act replaced earlier laws addressing the rights of the disabled. Among other things, it established an affirmative action program for federal employment of the disabled and prohibited discrimination against them by government contractors.

Source: Peter Keegan / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

1974: Last “Ugly Law” is repealed

Chicago was the last city to repeal its “ugly law” after 93 years enact. This law had prohibited those with deformities, disabilities, and diseases from appearing in public, even criminalizing those who did.

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