The History Of Disability Rights In Washington, DC

By Patricia Chadwick for The Metropole (publication of the Urban History Association) | October 14, 2023

Disability history is woven throughout the history of civil rights, institutions, medicine, eugenics, technology, war, and pandemics. The study of the history of disabled people has only recently emerged as its own discipline worthy of examination, even though it is very integrated into the overall history of the United States. Disability history intersects with that of other historically oppressed groups. Often, women, people of color, LGBTQI+, and other historically marginalized groups have been ascribed disabling characteristics to justify denying them the vote, institutionalization, forced sterilization, and other forms of mistreatment that people with actual disabilities should also not be subjected to. Examining United States history through the lens of disability provides an alternate frame of reference on the events that formed this nation.

In Washington, DC, there have been numerous significant events and people who have contributed to the emergence of national disability civil rights and justice movements, improved treatment and policy, and changed attitudes towards people with disabilities. Although the struggle for disability rights and justice has been prominent in other parts of the nation (Berkeley, CA, for example), DC is where civil rights policy is often established and where groups seeking redress often go to advocate.

Disability history in Washington, DC, ranges from advocacy by African American families attempting to reform conditions at institutions like St. Elizabeths and Forest Haven to protests like “Deaf President Now” and the “Capitol Crawl.” It includes the enactment of legislation like the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Olmstead Act, and most recently, the struggle by young BIPOC disabled people for a more inclusive disability community. This article will summarize these and other events critical in DC disability history.

St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital – 1855

St. Elizabeths opened in 1855 in Southeast Washington, DC, under the name “Government Hospital for the Insane.” It was intended to be a model institution for mental health treatment, and its founders advocated for the humane treatment of psychiatric patients.

The hospital pioneered new therapies, such as psychotherapy and hydrotherapy, but they were initially reserved for straight white people. Through 1960 people who identified as LGBTQI+ were treated with questionable and outdated therapies, such electroshock, lobotomies, and aversion therapy.

From the start, the institution accepted and treated Black patients, but patients were segregated by race, and the Black wards were overcrowded and inferior to the ones occupied by white people. Instead of being treated with newer therapies, African Americans might be assigned to a work gang as part of their “treatment.”[1]

In the 1950s, families of African American patients started advocating for better treatment. Organizations like Howard University and the NAACP also challenged segregation at St. Elizabeths. Their efforts led the hospital to gradually integrate its wards and to hire Black nurses, doctors, and eventually an African American superintendent.

Other residents of St. Elizabeths included Native Americans who had been institutionalized at the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, an institution created specifically for Indians, which opened in 1902 in Canton, South Dakota. The conditions there were so horrific that in 1933 the commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the asylum closed and moved the residents to St. Elizabeths. According to journalist Harold Iron Shield, the Native American residents were mainly “traditional spiritual people or teenagers who misbehaved or people the Indian Agent didn’t like.”[2]

The Invalid Corps – 1863

During the Civil War, when the Union was having trouble recruiting enough troops, the Secretary of War authorized what they called the Invalid Corps. Sixty thousand men who had become disabled from the war served in the Corps to free up able-bodied soldiers for the front lines. They guarded prisoners or worked as cooks or nurses.

The members of the Invalid Corps were required to wear light blue uniforms rather than the standard dark blue and were often stigmatized or subject to ridicule such as “hopeless cripples, shirkers, and cowards.”[3]

In July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early was on his way to attack Washington, DC, and city residents were panicking. Able-bodied Union soldiers had been sent south with General Grant for the siege of Petersburg. The Invalid Corps held off an advance by the fifteen thousand Confederate troops for twenty-four hours, until General Grant sent reinforcements.

The Invalid Corps demonstrated that people with disabilities could contribute to society. They could also advocate for more equitable treatment, as they did when they demanded standard uniforms and to change their name to “Veteran Reserve Corps.”

Gallaudet University – 1864

Gallaudet University, located in Northeast DC, is the only university in the world devoted to Deaf students. It was named after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who was a strong proponent of teaching deaf children sign language rather than pushing them to read lips and speak.

In 1988 the university was looking for a new president, and many in the Deaf community were advocating for a Deaf person to be named. But then the Board announced that a hearing person had been selected.

At a protest called Deaf President Now, students and their supporters shut down the campus and made four demands: the hearing candidate who had been chosen, Elisabeth Zinser, must resign and a Deaf person selected president; Jane Spilman must step down as chairperson of the Board of Trustees; Deaf people must constitute 51 percent of the Board; and there would no reprisals against any student or employee involved in the protest. Ultimately, Dr. I. King Jordan, a Deaf man, was named Gallaudet’s president.

Deaf President Now was an important milestone because it established that Deaf people could fight for their civil rights and that, in general, rights must be claimed rather than given. The Deaf protestors associated themselves with other civil rights struggles by saying, “We still have a dream.” The protest was widely covered by national and international media, raising the profile of disability rights and helping pave the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act.[4]

Blind Civil Rights

In 1900 the Columbia Polytechnic Institute for the Blind (later the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind) was founded in Northwest Washington, DC, by two blind men from Connecticut, Francis R. Cleveland and H. R. W. Miles, with the mission of helping people of all ages in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia region. Their goal was to serve blind people to enable them to remain independent, active, and productive in society.

Organizations, like the Lighthouse, that served people with disabilities were essential in changing attitudes about disabled people and helping encourage their full participation in society.

Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, is interred at the National Cathedral in DC. She was an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities, as well as for women and workers. She joined the Socialist Party and noted the close relationship between disability and poverty, blaming capitalism and poor industrial conditions for both. As Keller told the New York Tribune in 1916, blindness was “often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers.”[5]

League of the Physically Handicapped – 1935

The League of the Physically Handicapped was founded in New York in 1935. The members, many of whom were veterans, obtained evidence that the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a jobs program created by Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression—had a formal but secret policy of not hiring people with disabilities.

The League held protests and educational sessions in New York, and in 1936 thirty-five members traveled to Washington, DC, to bring their grievance directly to Roosevelt and the national head of the WPA, Harry Hopkins. Neither Roosevelt (despite the fact that he, himself, had a disability) nor Hopkins would meet with them, so they occupied the federal headquarters of the WPA.

The president of the League, twenty-one-year-old Sylvia Flexer Bassoff, explained to reporters that they wanted “not sympathy—but a concrete plan to end discrimination.”[6]

The occupation continued for forty-eight hours, until Hopkins finally agreed to a meeting. But he still maintained that disabled people were “unemployable” and completely dismissed the League’s basic argument that disabled people were in any way being oppressed.

During the protests, the League members were often portrayed in the press as “Communist cripples” or as “helpless crippled people.” But the public also saw people with disabilities demanding respect and equality, and fighting against oppression.

The League published a manifesto in August 1936 and distributed copies to Roosevelt, Hopkins, the press, and the public. The manifesto advanced the notion that this struggle was not a consequence of their impairment, but rather “unjust restrictions” and “unfounded prejudices.”[7]

The WPA eventually awarded more than five thousand jobs to disabled people throughout the country.

Mills v. Board of Education – 1972

Mills was a class action lawsuit brought to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by African American parents on behalf of seven children denied public education by the District of Columbia School District because of their disabilities and the cost of accommodations the school would incur to educate them.

US District Court Judge Joseph Cornelius Waddy ruled in favor of the students. Mills was one of the first cases in the United States that guaranteed the right of students with any disability to a public education, regardless of the cost to the school system, and led to comprehensive federal legislation protecting disabled children’s right to free public education.

Two cases—Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)—that had determined that education is a right that must be provided equally regardless of race, served as precedents for Mills.

Forest Haven – 1976

Forest Haven was an institution in Maryland that, at its peak, was home to close to 1,300 Washington, DC, residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Residents were subjected to abuse and received no treatment or even basic medical care. The distance of Forest Haven from DC made it difficult for families to visit their children, and the abuse was often hidden from them.

In 1976, a group of parents of six Black teenagers and young adults sued over the conditions. The case was named Evans v. Washington after Joy Evans, who was committed to Forest Haven when she was nine years old. In 1978 a judge ordered it closed, and residents began to be placed in group homes in DC. However, Forest Haven didn’t close until 1991.

Because DC didn’t meet the conditions set out by the court regarding the provision of services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, the case dragged on for years and was not officially closed until 2016.

While the case took a long time to be resolved, it did push the government to act and change policies on how people with disabilities should be integrated into communities, helping change general societal attitudes. Studies have shown that self-advocacy by disabled people and increased contact with disabled people by nondisabled people improves nondisabled persons’ perceptions of disability.[8]

504 Protests – 1977

In 1973 the Rehabilitation Act was signed by then President Nixon. Section 504 of the Act stated that:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The law was unenforceable without enabling regulations to tell the courts how to interpret it. The regulations were still not signed by the time Jimmy Carter started his presidency in 1977.

Disability activists gave the Carter administration a deadline of April 5, 1977, to sign the regulations. When the deadline passed, protests were organized around the country, including at the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) headquarters in Washington, DC.

The largest and longest protest was held in San Francisco at the federal building, which disability activists occupied for twenty-six days. Security tried to block anyone else from coming in the building after the protesters had occupied it, but the Black Panther party was able to get in and deliver food. Black Panther support for the protest stemmed from their philosophy of fighting oppression. They published several articles in The Black Panther newspaper discussing the protest and the link between African American and disability rights.

On April 15th, a congressional hearing was held in the building. The protesters were told that HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. was working on a “separate but equal” solution. This was not acceptable, so a delegation of disability activists, including Judy Heumann and Black Panther Brad Lomax, went to DC to attempt to meet with Califano in person.

Califano would not meet with the delegation, so they held vigils at his house and picketed outside of President Carter’s church. On April 27th, they protested outside the White House. On April 28th, Califano signed off on the regulations, handing a victory to the protesters. One of the key organizers of the 504 Protest, Kitty Cone, noted that the sit-ins were “the public birth of the disability rights movement . . . For the first time, disability really was looked at as an issue of civil rights rather than an issue of charity and rehabilitation at best, pity at worst.”

ADA and Capitol Crawl – 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. The ADA had been drafted but was stalled in the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation due to lobbying from the hotel and transportation industries, who were trying to weaken the law.

On March 12, 1990, a group of disabled activists gathered to demand the passage of the ADA without weakening it. At the Capitol building, protesters got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the steps. The dramatic demonstration affected public opinion, and on July 26th, the ADA was passed and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.

ADAPT Healthcare Protests – 2017

In 2017 Republicans drafted the American Health Care Act, an attempt to roll back Medicaid expansion and make deep cuts to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, while enacting tax cuts for the rich.

Activists, organized by the disability rights organization ADAPT, came to DC to protest. They staged a die-in outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, resulting in forty-three arrests. Capitol police dragged people who had gotten out of their wheelchairs—the actions were photographed and videotaped and went viral on social media.

The bill passed the House but not the Senate, a victory for disabled people who rely on Medicaid.

Disability Justice Roundtable – 2023

In 2005 disabled activists of color launched the framework of “disability justice,” which calls attention to the ways that ableism is linked to multiple other systems of oppression. Disability justice centers the needs and voices of “disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, among others.”[9]

In February 2023, five young Black disability justice advocates—Neli Latson, Elijah Armstrong, Jalyn Radziminski, Shawn Aleong, and Raven Sutton—met at the White House with government officials to discuss their experiences and challenges.

Raven Sutton, who is Deaf, said, “You can’t talk about diversity and . . . community and not involve people with disabilities in that conversation. It affects our lives. And if you continue to neglect us, you’re going to end up killing us.”

Neli Latson, who is autistic, had been imprisoned because of a racist and ableist encounter with police. He said, “I wanted to stand up and speak out, so that other autistic people, and other Black people, and other Black and autistic people would not experience the terrible things that happened to me . . . So being here today at the White House really is that dream come true.”[10]

[1] Jessie Kratz, “Treating Race at St. Elizabeths Hospital,” Pieces of History, a blog of the National Archives, August 31, 2020,

[2] Elizabeth Stawicki, “A Haunting Legacy: Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians,” December 9, 1997, on “Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians,” Lincoln County, South Dakota, Rootsweb,

[3] Day Al-Mohamed, director, The Invalid Corps (2019),

[4] Danica Rice, “Before the ADA, there was Deaf President Now,” Pieces of History, a blog of the National Archives, August 3, 2015,

[5] Sascha Cohen, “Helen Keller’s Forgotten Radicalism,” Time Magazine, June 26, 2015,

[6] Keith Rosenthal, “Pioneers in the Fight for Disability Rights: The League of the Physically Handicapped,” International Socialist Review, Issue 90 (2013),

[7] Rosenthal, “Pioneers in the Fight for Disability Rights.”

[8] Sally Robinson, Idle Jan, Karen R. Fisher, et al., “How Do Self-Advocates Use Community Development to Change Attitudes to Disability?” British Journal of Learning Disabilities, September 4, 2023,

[9] Patty Berne, “Disability Justice—A Working Draft,” Sins Invalid, June 10, 2015,

[10] Theresa Vargas, “A Black Disabled Teen went Unheard in Prison. People Are Now Listening,” Washington Post, February 25, 2023,

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