President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26th 1990, marking the end of a decades long battle to provide equality for the disabled.
The roots of the struggle date back to 1946, when the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign initiated research that included physical therapists, bio-mechanical engineers, and other individuals with disabilities to develop and participate in over 40 tests.
These tests were used by Dr. Timothy J. Nugent in 1948 to found the phrase ‘ANSI – Barrier Free Standard’ which is now used to provide minimum requirements for barrier free access. Backed by this research, accessibility activists formed the Disability Rights Movement during the 1960s. Towards the end of the 1960s, Edward Roberts emerged as the leader of the movement. He proposed that people with disabilities are the best experts determining their own needs, and must take the first steps toward designing and promoting better solutions.
In 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed, requiring that federally built structures be accessible to people with physical disabilities.
In 1973, the American Rehabilitation Act was signed into law, forbidding discrimination within federal programs and other programs receiving federal money.
On April 5th, 1977 there was a nationwide sit in at the now former U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare federal buildings. Activists sat in the New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta offices ordering a Senator to sign into law the specific regulations for the American Rehabilitation Act. Unfortunately, 28 hours after the sit in began, it ended due to heavy police presence.
A few days later, another sit in organized in San Francisco drew a crowd of over 120 activists over 25 days. Finally, the same Senator signed the regulations into law. Effective immediately, the Rehabilitation Act was the only signed law for disability rights.
In 1978, activists in Denver Colorado formed a sit in on the Denver Regional Transit Authority Buses, complaining about the lack of transportation accessibility. This sit in was the first of many demonstrations lasting over a year until the DRTAB finally purchased buses with wheelchair lifts.
In late 1987, Denver was once again the focal point of a sit in when the Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) targeted the American Public Transport Association – this sit in ended in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, requiring buses to be equipped with wheelchair lifts nationwide.
At least one more noteworthy protest occured in March of 1988 when Gallaudet University students marched after the Board of Trustees voted in a new President over two deaf candidates. 2,000 participants and 8 days later, protesters won when the university fired the current President and hired one of the deaf candidates.