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Disability in the United States: Rights, Movement, Benefits, ADA

disability in the USA: people with American flag with stars rearranged to make wheelchair sign
Samyak Lalit
Samyak Lalit | June 26, 2021 (Last update: September 18, 2021)

Samyak Lalit is an author and disability rights activist. He is a polio survivor and the founder of projects like Kavita Kosh, Gadya Kosh, TechWelkin, WeCapable, Dashamlav and Viklangta Dot Com. Website:

The United States of America is a pioneer country for disability rights. It is the country from where the movements for inclusive society began and is gradually spreading to the entire world. The disability laws of the United States are the basis on which disability laws of most of the other  countries have been formulated. In this article, we will be discussing about the state of disability laws in the USA and their implementation and how they affect the lives of individuals with disabilities.

Definition of Disability in the United States

Disability in the United States is defined as per the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Act, a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities is a Person with Disability. The disability definition covers those as well who have a record of such impairment even if they currently do not have a disability.

Major life activities include, but are not limited to –

  • Caring for oneself
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Walking
  • Eating
  • Standing
  • Lifting
  • Bending
  • Sitting
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Reading
  • Concentrating
  • Thinking
  • Communicating

Additionally, major life activities also include major bodily functions including, but not limited to –

  • Functions of immune system
  • Normal cell growth
  • Digestive functions
  • Bowel and bladder functions
  • Neurological functions
  • Brain functions
  • Respiratory functions
  • Circulatory functions
  • Endocrine functions
  • Reproductive functions

It must be noted that minor and transitory impairments i.e. impairment with actual or expected duration of 6 months or less are not considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

disability in the USA: people with American flag with stars rearranged to make wheelchair sign

Timeline for Disability Rights in the United States of America

  • 1776 – This was the time when badly injured and disabled soldiers after the Revolution war were granted a special pension. This incident is considered the first step towards granting disability rights.
  • 1817 – American School for the Deaf was founded as the first permanent school for deaf children in America. This was the first baby step towards granting the right to education to people with disabilities.
  • 1864 – Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind was established as the first college in the world for students with disabilities. The college was registered under the Gallaudet University, a university only for the disabled.
  • 1918 – Smith-Sears Veterans Rehabilitation Act became a law to provide employment assistance to people with disabilities who were discharged from the U.S. Military after being injured in wars.
  • 1935 – The Social Security Act was enacted to provide ‘payment of benefits’ to people with disabilities who had contributed to social security through taxation on their earnings.
  • 1936 – Randolph-Sheppard Act was enacted to enhance employment opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. It authorized persons with disabilities to operate vending facilities on federal property and also encouraged them to research other types of work they can do despite their limitations.
  • 1938 – Fair Labor Standards Act Section 14C mandated fair and equal pay for people with disabilities based on the prevailing wages.
  • 1946 – National Mental Health Act established the National Institute of Mental Health and mandated it to do biomedical and health-related research.
  • 1964 – Civil Rights Act, for the first time, legally prohibited discrimination and segregation based on race, color, religion or sex. (disability was added to the list only in 1988)
  • 1965 – People with disabilities started getting the needed assistance in casting their votes. This was a milestone event. Higher Education Act enacted in the same year provided financial assistance to persons with disabilities entering college or university.
  • 1973 – The Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 was the first federal civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. The law basically required all government-funded programs to be accessible to persons with disabilities without any discrimination.
  • 1975 – Education for All Handicapped Children mandated all public schools receiving federal funding to provide access to education to children with physical and mental disabilities. The same act is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • 1980 – Civil Rights of Institutionalized Person Act granted the right of filing civil suits in the department of justice to persons with disabilities if their rights were violated.
  • 1982 – The year witnessed at least two major events regarding disability rights. Telecommunication for the Disable Act made it mandatory for public phones to be accessible for people with hearing impairment. And, the Job Training Partnership Act established federal assistance for preparing youths and unskilled individuals with disabilities to enter the labor force by providing proper skills training.
  • 1988 – The preliminary version of the Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced in the Senate by Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. Disability was included in the Civil Rights Act which means the law now prohibited any form of discrimination or segregation based on disability
  • 1990 – The historic Americans with Disabilities Act became a law. Decades of disability rights activism and advocacy resulted in the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in the history of the world – The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA paved the path of the Right to Equality for persons with disabilities and laid the strong foundation of an inclusive society. The Act was amended subsequently to make it more elaborate and today it is seen as the yardstick for disability laws all around the world.

Disability Statistics United States

One in four or 26% of adults in the United States are inflicted with one or the other disability. Numerically it means 61 million adults in the United States are living with a disability.

Mobility impairment i.e. serious difficulty in walking or climbing is the most common type of disability in the United States. 13.7% of people with disabilities are affected by mobility impairment. It is followed by cognitive impairment (10.8%), hearing difficulty (5.9%) and vision impairment (4.6%).

Survey reports state that people with disabilities in the United States are more likely to be obese, smoke, have diabetes and heart diseases as compared to their non-disabled counterparts.

ALSO SEE: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program of the US government

Social Status of Persons with Disabilities in the United States

There are some communities in the United States that still carry prejudices and stigma against disability and disabled people. These communities tend to perceive disability as an illness as per the medical model. However, the social model of disability is a highly accepted model in American society. Pride in disability identity is very common in US society. People with Disability and society embrace the disability with pride. There’s no shame, fear or stigma attached to any kind of disability. This can be easily witnessed through the various disability pride parades organized in the country.

Disability services are available at college campuses to support students with disabilities against any discrimination and to support them in getting job opportunities. While the laws support persons with disabilities and federal vocational rehabilitation agencies work maturely, there still remains an employment gap between individuals with disabilities and those without disabilities.

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