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Judy Heumann speaks at a rally for disability rights in 1977.

Photograph by HolLynn D’Lil, author of Becoming Real in 24 Days/Photo Colorized by Bianca Alexis

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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Civic Ideals and Practices

THE BIG READ

Paired Text

The Fight for Disability Rights

Thirty years ago, lawmakers passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a key law that protects people who have disabilities from discrimination. 

As You Read, Think About: What changes have helped make the world better for people who have disabilities?

Judy Heumann knows what it’s like to grow up in a world that wasn’t built for her. In 1949, when she was 18 months old, she contracted a disease called polio, which left her paralyzed.

When Heumann’s mom tried to enroll her in kindergarten in New York City, the principal wouldn’t let her in, calling her wheelchair a “fire hazard.” Three years later, Heumann was finally allowed to attend school. But she and other students with disabilities were forced to learn in the basement—separate from other kids. 

As Heumann got older, it was difficult for her to go to the movies with her friends because theaters lacked wheelchair ramps. She often had to be carried up flights of stairs.  

But Heumann never felt ashamed of who she was, and why should she? She knew it wasn’t people with disabilities who needed to change—it was the world around them. 

“People continually think that those of us with disabilities would prefer not to have our disabilities,” Heumann, now 73, says. “It’s important for people to see that disability is a normal part of life.”

Heumann spent decades as an activist in the disability rights movement, leading sit-ins and other protests to demand equality for people who have disabilities.

Judy Heumann knows what it is like to grow up in a world that was not built for her. In 1949, she came down with a disease called polio. It left her paralyzed. She was 18 months old.

Heumann’s mom tried to enroll her in kindergarten in New York City. But the principal would not let her in, calling her wheelchair a “fire hazard.” Three years later, Heumann was finally allowed to attend school. But she and other students with disabilities were forced to learn in the basement—separate from other kids.

As Heumann got older, it was hard for her to go to the movies with her friends. Theaters lacked wheelchair ramps. She often had to be carried up flights of stairs.

But Heumann never felt ashamed of who she was. Why should she? She knew it was not people with disabilities who needed to change. It was the world around them.

“People continually think that those of us with disabilities would prefer not to have our disabilities,” says Heumann. She is now 73. “It’s important for people to see that disability is a normal part of life.”

Heumann spent decades as an activist in the disability rights movement. She led sit-ins and other protests to demand equality for people with disabilities.

Fotosearch/Getty Images

President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990.

That movement resulted in the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. The law makes it illegal to discriminate against people because of their disabilities. It also requires that places like schools, grocery stores, and theaters be made accessible—for instance, by installing wheelchair ramps, designated parking spots, and signs written in Braille. 

Today, the ADA is still considered one of the most important civil rights laws in U.S. history.

“For a long time, people with disabilities had little to no rights across the United States,” says Keri Gray. She’s a senior director at the American Association of People with Disabilities. “The ADA is a big piece of legislation that ensures that people with disabilities . . . can thrive.”

That movement resulted in the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. The law makes it illegal to discriminate against people because of their disabilities. It also requires that places like schools, grocery stores, and theaters be made accessible, for example, by installing wheelchair ramps, designating parking spots, and having signs written in Braille.

Today, the ADA is still considered one of the most important civil rights laws in U.S. history.

“For a long time, people with disabilities had little to no rights across the United States,” says Keri Gray. She is a senior director at the American Association of People with Disabilities. “The ADA is a big piece of legislation that ensures that people with disabilities . . . can thrive.”

Jeffrey Phelps/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/AP Images

The ADA allows people with disabilities to bring service dogs to most public places, including schools.

History of Discrimination

About 61 million American adults have a disability—one in four. This includes people who have Down syndrome, autism, blindness, hearing loss, or ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), among others. A person’s disability can be permanent or temporary.

Like Heumann, people with disabilities have had to overcome a long history of discrimination. Before the ADA, for example, restaurants could legally refuse to serve people with disabilities and employers could legally refuse to hire them. 

About 61 million American adults have a disability. That is one in four. They include people with Down syndrome, autism, blindness, hearing loss, or ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), among others. A disability can be permanent or temporary.

Like Heumann, people with disabilities have had to overcome a long history of discrimination. Before the ADA, for example, restaurants could legally refuse to serve people with disabilities. And employers could legally refuse to hire them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act “ensures that people with disabilities…can thrive.”

Americans with disabilities were often looked down upon and segregated from society. In many states, they were barred from going to public schools. And many kids with disabilities were sent to institutions, where they were kept out of sight of the general public and sometimes neglected or abused by the adults who were supposed to care for them.  

There were also physical barriers that prevented people with disabilities from fully participating in society. Many things that are common today—curb cuts on street corners, wheelchair lifts on public buses, and ramps in front of buildings—were rare. That meant people with disabilities often lacked the same opportunities as people who didn’t have disabilities. 

“People who don’t have a disability often don’t think about it,” says Lindsey Patterson, a history professor at Elmhurst University in Illinois who studies the disability rights movement. “But for people with disabilities, stairs can be the barrier between whether they have a job or not or if they can go to school or not.”

Americans with disabilities were often looked down upon and segregated from society. In many states, they were barred from going to public schools. Many kids with disabilities were sent to institutions, and kept out of sight of the general public. They were sometimes neglected or abused by the adults who were supposed to care for them.

There were also physical barriers that prevented people with disabilities from fully participating in society. Many things that are common today were rare back then. Examples include curb cuts on street corners, wheelchair lifts on public buses, and ramps in front of buildings. That meant people with disabilities often lacked the same opportunities as people who did not have disabilities.

“People who don’t have a disability often don’t think about it,” says Lindsey Patterson. She is a history professor at Elmhurst University in Illinois. She studies the disability rights movement. “But for people with disabilities, stairs can be the barrier between whether they have a job or not or if they can go to school or not.”

Celebrating Differences 

Fanisee Bias (below) was diagnosed with a disease of the spinal cord when she was in middle school. Now a college student, here’s what she wants you to know about her life—and the ADA.

Courtesy of Fanisee Bias

I was in my sixth-grade P.E. class when I went to get up from the ground. All of a sudden, I was unable to feel my legs. My vision became blurred and sound was faint. I was in shock. I was rushed to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with a spinal disease called transverse myelitis. Throughout junior high and high school, I was in a wheelchair. I then moved on to forearm crutches, and now I walk with canes. 

I used to think my “old” life ended at the time of my diagnosis. But it turns out that was just the beginning of a new perspective on life, happiness, and disability. 

I never really talked about my disability in junior high. Growing older, I found the right people, support systems, and ways to get involved in disability justice. I soon found my passion and purpose.

When I got to the University of San Diego in 2018—as a young, disabled, low-income woman of color and first-generation college student—I was eager to find community. I created a student group called the Alliance of Disability Advocates. 

We push for greater accessibility on campus, such as elevators in buildings and American Sign Language interpreters. We also work to erase stigmas surrounding people with disabilities and to increase awareness of the ADA.

That law isn’t always enforced, so young people with disabilities need to know their rights and be their own advocates. We should never stop striving for more inclusivity and progress.

I was in my sixth-grade P.E. class when I went to get up from the ground. All of a sudden, I was unable to feel my legs. My vision became blurred and sound was faint. I was in shock. I was rushed to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with a spinal disease called transverse myelitis. Throughout junior high and high school, I was in a wheelchair. I then moved on to forearm crutches, and now I walk with canes. 

I used to think my “old” life ended at the time of my diagnosis. But it turns out that was just the beginning of a new perspective on life, happiness, and disability. 

I never really talked about my disability in junior high. Growing older, I found the right people, support systems, and ways to get involved in disability justice. I soon found my passion and purpose.

When I got to the University of San Diego in 2018—as a young, disabled, low-income woman of color and first-generation college student—I was eager to find community. I created a student group called the Alliance of Disability Advocates. 

We push for greater accessibility on campus, such as elevators in buildings and American Sign Language interpreters. We also work to erase stigmas surrounding people with disabilities and to increase awareness of the ADA.

That law isn’t always enforced, so young people with disabilities need to know their rights and be their own advocates. We should never stop striving for more inclusivity and progress.

Fighting Back

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which banned discrimination based on race—became law, it inspired Americans with disabilities to fight back against the injustices they faced.

After graduating from college in 1969, Heumann won a lawsuit against the New York City school system for denying her a teacher’s license because of her paralysis. She became the first teacher in New York City public schools to use a wheelchair. 

With that victory, Heumann became a leader of the disability rights movement, where she continued to protest for equality. During one rally in 1972, for example, she and other activists parked their wheelchairs in the middle of a busy New York City street—stopping traffic to call attention to their cause. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race. When it became law, it inspired Americans with disabilities to fight back against the injustices they faced.

After graduating from college in 1969, Heumann won a lawsuit against the New York City school system for denying her a teacher’s license because of her paralysis. She became the first New York City public school teacher to use a wheelchair.

With that victory, Heumann became a leader of the disability rights movement. She continued protesting for equality. For example, during a rally in 1972, she and other activists parked their wheelchairs in the middle of a busy New York City street. They stopped traffic to call attention to their cause.

Jeff Markowitz/AP Images

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, 8, (in bandanna) takes part in the Capitol Crawl on March 12, 1990, to urge Congress to pass the ADA.

A Dramatic Protest 

Over the decades, support for a comprehensive civil rights law to protect Americans with disabilities began to grow. But by the spring of 1990, more than 25 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress still had not approved similar legislation to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities. To pressure lawmakers to act, hundreds of protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1990. 

With news cameras rolling, dozens of people ditched their wheelchairs and crutches and pulled themselves up the 78 steps of the U.S. Capitol. One of them was 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscle control and balance and can make it difficult to walk. It took the second-grader nearly an hour to make it to the top of the stairs (see photo, above). But she was determined. “I’ll take all night if I have to,” she said.

The protest came to be known as the Capitol Crawl. It showed the world how difficult it can be for people with certain disabilities to get around—and why the Americans with Disabilities Act was needed. 

Over the decades, support began to grow for a major law to protect Americans with disabilities. But by the spring of 1990, more than 25 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress still had not approved similar legislation to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities. To pressure lawmakers to act, hundreds of protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1990.

News cameras were rolling. Dozens of people ditched their wheelchairs and crutches. They pulled themselves up the 78 steps of the U.S. Capitol. One of them was 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins. She has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscle control and balance. It can make it difficult to walk. It took the second-grader nearly an hour to reach the top of the stairs (see photo, above). But she was determined. “I’ll take all night if I have to,” she said.

The protest came to be known as the Capitol Crawl. It showed the world how hard it can be for people with certain disabilities to get around. And it showed why the Americans with Disabilities Act was needed.

“Declaration of Equality”

About four months later, history was made. At a ceremony on the White House lawn, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law, calling it a “declaration of equality.” 

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” he announced.

Today, the ADA means that schools, transportation, and other areas of public life are supposed to be accessible to everyone. As a result, things like elevators and closed-captioning on TV are more common. 

And because of the ADA, young people today are growing up in a very different world from the one in which Heumann grew up. Tom Geraci, for example—a high school student from Newton, Massachusetts—has a form of autism. He says the ADA “has greatly improved our visibility in society, our access to reasonable accommodations in school, [and has] reduced discrimination.”

About four months later, history was made. At a ceremony on the White House lawn, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law. He called it a “declaration of equality.”

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” he announced.

Today, the ADA means that schools, transportation, and other areas of public life are supposed to be accessible to everyone. As a result, things like elevators and closed-captioning on TV are more common.

And because of the ADA, young people today are growing up in a very different world from the one in which Heumann grew up. For example, Tom Geraci is a high school student from Newton, Massachusetts. He has a form of autism. He says the ADA “has greatly improved our visibility in society, our access to reasonable accommodations in school, [and has] reduced discrimination.”

“I don’t want people to feel that they are lesser because they have a disability. Ultimately, their disability gives them strength.”

However, people with disabilities still face challenges. Many public places still aren’t fully accessible. At the same time, studies have found that students with disabilities are bullied at high rates. And only 31 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed in 2019, compared with 75 percent of those without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Jake Linn, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who has ADHD and anxiety, says a big problem is that people with disabilities are still too often viewed in a negative light. He’s studying film in college, hoping to help change the way people who have disabilities are portrayed on TV and in movies. 

“People have gained their perceptions from media,” he says. “And there are often negative depictions of people with disabilities, which has affected people like me.” 

As for Heumann, she wants kids and teens with disabilities to know that their rights are protected by the ADA—and that having a disability is just one part of who they are. 

“I don’t want people to feel that they are lesser because they have a disability,” she says. “Ultimately, their disability gives them strength.” 

However, people with disabilities still face challenges. Many public places still are not fully accessible. Studies have found that students with disabilities are bullied at high rates. Also, only 31 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed in 2019. That is compared with 75 percent of people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Jake Linn is a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has ADHD and anxiety. He says a big problem is that people with disabilities are still too often viewed in a negative light. He is studying film in college, hoping to help change the way people who have disabilities are portrayed on TV and in movies.

“People have gained their perceptions from media,” he says. “And there are often negative depictions of people with disabilities, which has affected people like me.”

As for Heumann, she wants kids and teens with disabilities to know that their rights are protected by the ADA. And she wants them to know that having a disability is just one part of who they are.

“I don’t want people to feel that they are lesser because they have a disability,” she says. “Ultimately, their disability gives them strength.”

Write About It! How has the ADA helped improve life for people who have disabilities? What challenges do they still face? Include details from the article to support your ideas.

Click here to read a paired text article about Chris Nikic, an athlete who recently became the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon.

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