For decades, Congress has been taking important steps to affirm and secure the right of people with disabilities to a life in the community and to achieve that vision. There has been a number of presidents that interacted to help make a lot of the accessibility laws where they are today.
In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law that allowed the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Death and Dumb and Blind to confer college degrees (now known as Gallaudet College). President Ulysses S. Grant signed the diplomas of the first three young men who graduated from the Gallaudet College in June of 1869. To this day the diplomas of all Gallaudet graduates are signed by the presiding U.S. president.
On July 3, 1946 President Harry Truman signed the National Mental Health Act which later became the National Institute of Mental Health. This act provided for the expansion of mental health facilities, including Veterans Affairs (VA) centers that would treat mental health problems in veterans. The reason for this act was because many soldiers were coming back from World War II with mental health related-issues, and the United States Government realized that this was a major issue that needed to be addressed.
President John F. Kennedy was a huge advocate for mental health, or as it was called back then “mental retardation”. He asked that methods be found to help people that have mental illness so they can return to normal society. As a result, better health programs along with strengthening educational and rehabilitation services for people that are mentally challenged were created.
In 1968 the Architectural Barriers Act was signed by President Lyndon D Johnson. This was one of the first efforts to ensure buildings and facilities are designed and constructed to be accessible to people with disabilities.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a huge step forward for the disability community. Even though President Richard Nixon vetoed it in 1972 it was hugely protested by the Paralyze Veterans of America, and The National Paraplegic Foundation. President Richard Nixon finally signed the bill into law, establishing Section 504.
In 1988 the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA) was first introduced to the house and senate. It was finally signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H W Bush. This was another huge step forward for the disability community. Eight years later President Clinton signed into law the amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which includes Section 508. The law covers all types of electronic and information technology in the federal sector.
Special Olympics Sports in Empowerment Act became law in 2004 signed by President George W. Bush. Even though Special Olympics was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy, it is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
There has been a lot of presidents that have helped make disability laws were they are now, and their still a lot more that needs to be done. Hopefully our future presidents will have a bigger impact on new accessibility rights and laws.
Read the Timeline of Disability Rights in the United States and Disability in Historyto learn more about presidents who have enacted laws to help people with disabilities.