From National Council on Independent Living (ncil) website

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From National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) website (
The Disabilty Rights and Independent Living Movements

I am a slow walker, but I never walk backward… be not deceived, my friends, revolutions do not go backward.”  Lincoln

Prior to the 1960’s, people with significant disabilities were invariably incarcerated in state-run institutions.  People with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and sensory or physical disabilities were kept in appalling and inhumane conditions often far worse than criminals were subjected to, even at the time.  Deinstitutionalization is a process that began to occur in the 1960’s in which people with significant disabilities were gradually released from institutions to return to their communities where treatment was to be available.  This process created for the first time in American history an opportunity, an imperative, for people with disabilities to live free and independent lives.  From this, a community and a culture with history, values, and an objective were born.  As with any minority, the real battle would come in winning the support of the public.  The movement toward deinstitutionalization came about through disability activism, but another historically important factor was the emergence of new technologies and medications, coupled with an expectation of even better assistive technology.  Although deinstitutionalization was a victory for the disability community, the public did not yet believe that people with disabilities were entirely entitled to their civil and human rights regardless of disability.

Emancipation from state-run institutions came for the disability community amidst massive Civil Rights Movements nationally and abroad.  Leaders of the disability community began to realize that our human rights and civil liberties would come only as we fought for them, and that we would have to fight in the street to have our voice heard in Washington in order to enact anti-discrimination and civil rights laws that applied to people with disabilities directly.  With most state-run institutions closed, people with significant disabilities became more visible, and more audible, too.  But society’s unwelcoming attitude did not change.  This situation created an opportunity for the private medical industry to appropriate the position once held by state-run institutions.  Nursing home expansion allowed society to avoid integration of people with disabilities while maintaining a clean conscience, as the nursing home industry began to spin the issue as a social welfare cause.  All the while, they pushed policies that would make it almost impossible for a person to leave a nursing home once they had entered.  The nursing home industry worked to enact laws that created an “institutional bias,” which means that the government will pay for needed services for a person residing in a nursing home, but not for the same services provided in one’s own home, even when the cost is less.  For people who depend on these services, this effectively means that they may never be able to leave a nursing home.  With people with disabilities out of sight and out of mind, segregation remained a viable option for America and the nursing home industry became a formidable and affluent opponent for the Disability Rights Movement.

Beginning in the 1940’s and 50’s, people with disabilities began to organize for political change.  Leagues developed for “The Blind,” “The Deaf,” and “The Physically Handicapped,” advocated for an end to discrimination in Federal programs, education, and employment.  Disability-specific advocacy efforts initiated and pioneered the Disability Rights Movement and realized significant accomplishments in opportunities available to people with disabilities, but real political power was achieved with the dawn of the Independent Living Movement, which is founded in the belief that people with disabilities, regardless of the form, have a common history and a shared struggle, that we are a community and a culture that will advance further banded together politically. 

The Independent Living Movement articulated and embodied the values of the Disability Rights Movement.  One critical aspect of Independent Living philosophy is the conversion from the Medical Model to the Independent Living Model (or Social Model) of understanding disability, which gave people with disabilities a new way of understanding our identities as people with disabilities. As it developed and took hold the political identity of people with disabilities cemented itself.  Protests, occupations, and other acts of civil disobedience intended to gain basic civil rights for people with disabilities were held nation-wide.  Heroes of the Disability Rights Movement realized sweeping legal victories over the years, including the overriding of President Nixon’s veto of the Rehabilitation Act by Congress and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (formerly the Education of all Handicapped Children Act), which requires that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.

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