U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities

After decades of being represented by others in lobbying government on policy issues, disabled persons themselves pushed Congress to enact the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Summary of Event

For most of American history, people with disabilities were excluded from mainstream society. Many disabled people were kept at home and cared for by their families. Government institutions for the disabled tended to shut people inside without even attempting to provide training and education that might integrate disabled people into American society. One reason for the exclusion of disabled people was limited scientific knowledge about how to assist the development of differently abled people. Another prominent cause of exclusion was widespread societal attitudes that regarded the disabled as people who were incapable of functioning in jobs and schools with other people. Attitudes toward disabled people were tinged with either apathy or paternalism. Even individuals who cared about the disabled often behaved as if disabled people needed to be protected and sheltered from participation in American society. Rehabilitation Act (1973)
Disabled persons’ rights[Disabled persons rights]
[kw]U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities (Sept. 26, 1973)
[kw]Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities, U.S. (Sept. 26, 1973)
[kw]Demands of Persons with Disabilities, U.S. Congress Responds to (Sept. 26, 1973)
[kw]Persons with Disabilities, U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of (Sept. 26, 1973)
[kw]Disabilities, U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with (Sept. 26, 1973)
Rehabilitation Act (1973)
Disabled persons’ rights[Disabled persons rights]
[g]North America;Sept. 26, 1973: U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities[01280]
[g]United States;Sept. 26, 1973: U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities[01280]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 26, 1973: U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities[01280]
[c]Human rights;Sept. 26, 1973: U.S. Congress Responds to Demands of Persons with Disabilities[01280]
Cranston, Alan
Brademas, John
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;Rehabilitation Act

A natural consequence of this treatment and perception of disabled people was an almost complete lack of opportunities for equal education and employment. If a disabled person wished to seek a university education or to learn a trade, he or she was likely to be excluded from admission to necessary educational programs. Moreover, young people with disabilities were often sent to separate schools that did not adequately prepare them for entering professions and for competing with other Americans in the job market.

If disabled people looked for jobs, there were no laws to protect them against overt discrimination. Employers frequently declined to consider hiring disabled people regardless of whether a disabled person was qualified to perform the job in question. In the aftermaths of major wars, there was some heightened sensitivity to people with certain disabilities, such as amputees, as wounded veterans returned to civilian life. Despite the sympathy that many people held for them, however, disabled veterans still faced widespread discrimination. Moreover, a heightened concern for veterans did not necessarily carry over to civilians who had various other kinds of disabilities.

When government officials considered creating new programs to benefit disabled people, there was rarely much input from disabled people themselves about what programs and services would be most beneficial. Many programs were shaped primarily by the views of the officials within specific government agencies that were responsible for helping the disabled. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped American Federation of the Physically Handicapped was active in lobbying on behalf of disabled people, but it often came into conflict with the National Rehabilitation Association National Rehabilitation Association and government officials who were responsible for providing services to the disabled. Representatives of the American Federation believed that, because of the influence of rehabilitation officials, programs were designed to expand the power and resources of those officials. As a result, government programs often did not provide the services most needed and desired by disabled people.

Parents of disabled people also formed organizations during the 1940’s and 1950’s to lobby the government on behalf of their differently abled children. Disabled people created some of their own organizations, but these organizations had limited effectiveness in lobbying the government. There were several reasons for their limited effectiveness. First, the organizations were primarily focused on deaf people or blind people. People with many other disabilities were not organized. As a relatively powerless minority, it was impossible for disabled people to make their views known to Congress and state legislatures without effective, politically active organizations. Second, the organizations that existed usually limited their attention to one particular form of disability. There was very little cooperation between groups because disabled people had not recognized and acted on the common aspects of their victimization and exclusion from mainstream American society.

The civil rights struggles of African Americans during the 1950’s and 1960’s affected the political orientations of disabled people. The example provided by African Americans helped others to identify themselves as victims of societal discrimination and to assert that they deserved rights and benefits from the government. Just like women, older people, prisoners, and other politically less powerful groups, disabled people drew from the lessons of the Civil Rights movement in order to publicize and fight the discrimination directed against people with disabilities. After civil rights groups managed to push Congress to pass legislation against racial and other forms of discrimination during the mid-1960’s, disabled people increasingly organized themselves to pressure Congress to enact similar legislation to create equal opportunities for them.

By the 1970’s, there were a variety of organized groups lobbying on behalf of disabled people. In addition, some organizations of disabled people began to undertake civil disobedience campaigns modeled on the actions of African Americans during the 1950’s and 1960’s. There were sit-ins and demonstrations that attempted to publicize the fact that, for example, people in wheelchairs could not gain access to restaurants, sporting events, public transportation, and other aspects of American life taken for granted by others in society.

During 1972 and 1973, Congress enacted legislation to provide substantial funds for programs to benefit the disabled. Organizations of disabled people were very active in pushing for this legislation. During hearings on the proposed legislation, representatives from twenty-four organizations testified before Congress. In the Senate, a key sponsor of the proposed Rehabilitation Act was Senator Alan Cranston from California. He served as the acting chair of the Subcommittee on the Handicapped of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. In his role as chair, he presided over the hearings in which the concerns of disabled people were voiced. Cranston’s counterpart in the House of Representatives was John Brademas of Indiana. Brademas bore primary responsibility for shepherding the legislation through the House. When slightly different versions of the legislation passed both houses of Congress, Cranston chaired the conference committee that shaped compromise resolutions acceptable to both the House and the Senate.

President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the initial legislation in October, 1972, because he claimed that the programs for the disabled would be too expensive. In 1973, Congress developed a new bill, but on March 27, 1973, Nixon vetoed this second bill as well. Again, he claimed that the bill would be too expensive. When the Senate debated a pending vote to attempt to override the president’s veto on April 3, the Senate corridors were filled with disabled people representing thirty different organizations. Although the Senate fell four votes short of overriding the veto, Nixon’s efforts to block the Rehabilitation Act had so outraged disabled people that they were spurred to increase their political activism.

During May and June, 1973, Congress worked quickly to shape a new bill that would meet the president’s objections. Many members of Congress were disappointed about the modifications in the third bill, but they recognized the need to compromise in order to pass a law on behalf of the disabled. In September, Congress passed the version of the Rehabilitation Act that was signed into law by President Nixon on September 26.


The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 allocated significant new resources to benefit the disabled. In addition to money for vocational training, special demonstration projects, and the construction of rehabilitation facilities, the act gave disabled people civil rights protections under federal law. Section 504 of the act declared that no qualified person could, on the basis of a handicap, be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any federally funded program. Section 504 served as the basis for investigations by federal agencies into the treatment of disabled people by hospitals, school systems, local governments, and other entities that received federal funds. If, for example, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that a hospital discriminated against the disabled, that hospital could lose all federal funding.

As a result of the enforcement power given to federal agencies through section 504, hospitals, schools, and other federally funded institutions were pressured to make their physical facilities accessible. Many institutions installed wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms, braille elevator buttons, and other modifications. In addition, institutions were forced to evaluate their policies and procedures to identify whether there were any intentional or inadvertent barriers to full participation by disabled people. Because of the federal government’s efforts, many disabled people had new opportunities to be considered for employment, to receive services, and to participate in programs at various educational, medical, and governmental institutions.

Although the Rehabilitation Act and section 504 created new opportunities for disabled people, the legislation also led to significant political conflicts concerning how far society should go to guarantee accessibility to all disabled people. The most notable conflict concerned public transportation, because of the great expense involved in making all buses and subways accessible to wheelchair passengers through the installation of elevators and lifts. Transit officials usually sought to use special vans to transport disabled people, but many politically active disabled people demanded that all elements of public transportation be made accessible regardless of the expense. The battle over accessibility of public transit led many critics to cite section 504 as an example of excessive governmental regulation.

In addition to the specific benefits from the Rehabilitation Act, a more general consequence of the legislative battle over enactment was increased awareness, political activity, and coordination by disabled people seeking to influence governmental policies. As a direct result of the struggle over the Rehabilitation Act, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was founded in 1974 to coordinate the lobbying efforts of organizations representing disabled people. The formation of the ACCD gave disabled people increased visibility and political clout when dealing with governmental policy makers. Rehabilitation Act (1973)
Disabled persons’ rights[Disabled persons rights]

Further Reading

  • Katzmann, Robert A. Institutional Disability: The Saga of Transportation Policy for the Disabled. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986. This study of the conflict over making public transit accessible to the disabled provides a concise, readable account of the political maneuvering and policy conflicts that arose from the enforcement of section 504. Includes a history of the development of agency regulations concerning section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
  • Liachowitz, Claire H. Disability as a Social Construct: Legislative Roots. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988. A brief history of the development and changes in American ideas and policies concerning disabled people. Provides useful perspective on how the government has treated the problems of disabled people.
  • National Assocation of the Deaf. Legal Rights: The Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People. 5th rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2005. Addresses the legal rights of the deaf and hard of hearing seeking equal access in education, employment, social services, and medical care. Chapter 3 addresses the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • Northrup, James P. Old Age, Handicapped, and Vietnam-Era Antidiscrimination Legislation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977. This book contains a brief history and description of the Rehabilitation Act. Includes demographic statistics on the characteristics of the disabled population within the United States.
  • Olson, Susan M. Clients and Lawyers: Securing the Rights of Disabled Persons. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. A study of the litigation strategies employed by disabled people and their organizations in seeking to influence the development of public policy. Discusses the growth in political consciousness and political activity by disabled people that helped to shape the Rehabilitation Act and section 504.
  • Scheingold, Stuart A. The Politics of Rights: Lawyers, Public Policy, and Political Change. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Discusses how groups and individuals seek to shape government policy by asserting their “rights.” Provides a broader analytic discussion of the type of political consciousness discovered by the disabled and other groups.
  • Scotch, Richard K. From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984. Includes some of the most complete and readable descriptions available of the events and political strategies that led to passage of the Rehabilitation Act. Also discusses the development of controversies surrounding section 504 of the act.
  • Switzer, Jacqueline Vaughn. Disabled Rights: American Disability Policy and the Fight for Equality. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003. Social, legal, and political perspectives on how people with diabilities have been treated in the United States. Author focuses on the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).

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