Civil Rights (Persons With Disabilities)


black and white photograph of wheelchair-using protesters dressed in colonial costumes in the streets of philadelphia
In May 1989, eleven ADAPT activists staged a march from Independence Hall to the Liberty Bell in response to the influential case ADAPT vs. Burnley. (Tom Olin Collection)

Philadelphia-area people with disabilities and their allies joined the nationwide escalation of activism for civil rights during the second half of the twentieth century. Their protests and legal actions forced substandard institutions to close and liberate their residents. They also held local authorities accountable for implementing landmark federal legislation to improve accessibility, especially on public transportation, and to secure equal opportunity for work and education. Into the twenty-first century, individuals with disabilities and their allies remained vigilant to prevent the erosion of hard-won victories.

The disability rights movement of the twentieth century challenged decades of social and legal restrictions placed on persons with disabilities by states and localities. During the nineteenth century, these included barring people perceived as impaired from casting ballots; New Jersey and Delaware were among the states whose early constitutions banned any “idiot or insane person” from voting. Almshouses, asylums, hospitals, and other institutions confined many physically and mentally disabled people, effectively incarcerating them for life. Across the nation, cities enacted ordinances later known as “ugly laws” to outlaw people considered “deformed” from being seen in public. By the late nineteenth century, the pseudo-science of eugenics sought to prevent future generations of “defectives” through laws to ban marriages and require sterilizations, including statutes enacted in New Jersey and Delaware (but not Pennsylvania).

The disability rights movement emerged from a combination of factors in the decades following World War II. Wounded veterans from two world wars, together with survivors of recent epidemics of polio, expanded the population of people with disabilities who needed public and private support. Meanwhile, the emphasis on individual freedom and human rights voiced by the federal government during the war and subsequently by the United Nations provided a vocabulary for pursuing civil rights on many fronts. People with disabilities, their families, and allies embraced this framework and embarked on strategies similar to those deployed by African Americans, women, and other groups seeking their full rights as citizens. Activists in the preceding movements at times worked in tandem with the quest for disability rights.

Parents Advocate and Organize

Pearl S. Buck, pictured here c. 1932, won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in Literature. While living in Bucks County in 1950, Buck published The Child Who Never Grew about her experiences with her daughter, who was born with a disability. This book promoted positive attitudes toward people with disabilities. (Library of Congress)

Parents of children with disabilities were among the earliest to organize to advocate for equal access to education and quality of care in residential treatment facilities. Local chapters of national organizations focusing on specific conditions, such as cerebral palsy, formed throughout the Greater Philadelphia region to raise awareness and funding. During the 1950s, a time of idealization of family life, parents called attention to disability as an experience that could affect any family. Author Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, encouraged parents across the nation to share their stories when she published The Child Who Never Grew (1950) about seeking care for her daughter, Carol, at the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey. Buck later chaired the Governor’s Committee on Handicapped Children formed in Pennsylvania in 1958. Parental concern led another Pennsylvania governor, Richard L. Thornburgh (1932-2020), to become an early advocate for disability rights after one of his sons suffered a brain injury. Later, as U.S. attorney general, Thornburgh helped secure passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Parent advocacy groups based in Philadelphia included the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC), organized in 1949. A member of PARC triggered a chain of events with national implications in 1968 by encouraging local television reporter Bill Baldini (b. 1943) to expose horrendous conditions at the Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County, Pennsylvania. A subsequent class-action lawsuit, PARC vs. Pennsylvania, resulted in a consent decree ordering the state to provide access to free public education to “retarded” children. The case, argued by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, provoked similar lawsuits that culminated with the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975.

black and white photograph of the entire pennhurst campus
Pennhurst State School and Hospital, opened in 1908 and pictured here in the 1920s, was an institution for the disabled in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Within Pennhurst, rampant abuses and neglect of its patients prompted the case Halderman v. Pennhurst (1977), which led to closing the facility in 1986. (Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance)

Years of additional litigation on behalf of Pennhurst residents, including Halderman v. Pennhurst (filed 1974) and Youngberg v. Romeo (filed 1976), culminated with closing the institution in 1987. Other institutions across the nation shut down as the Public Interest Law Center trained attorneys in other states to apply their strategies. In 2002 the Law Center filed a class-action in Delaware that led to a settlement for greater access to community services for people with developmental disabilities housed in the Stockley Center in Sussex County. Individuals with developmental disabilities also organized to speak on their own behalf with the group Speaking For Ourselves, which originated in Montgomery County in 1982 and expanded with chapters elsewhere in the region.

Lawsuits Multiply

Legal actions continued to press for equal opportunity in education. For example, the 1993 case Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon (New Jersey), secured classroom support for a student with Down syndrome. In Pennsylvania, the class action Gaskin v. Commonwealth in 1994 called attention to needs for greater compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

colored photograph of judith heumann
Judith Heumann was a Philadelphia-born disability rights activist paralyzed by polio who founded the disability advocacy group Disabled In Action. A lifelong advocate of public accommodations for those who are disabled, Heumann, pictured here in 2014, visited Japan as the U.S. State Department Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. (East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State)

In pursuit of accessibility and independent living, adults with disabilities mobilized from the 1960s through the end of the century to insist that federal laws such as the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 were fully implemented. In Philadelphia and South Jersey, activists pressed SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) and PATCO (the Port Authority Transit Corporation) to make trains, buses, and subways fully accessible. In Philadelphia, the long campaign of attending meetings, staging protests, and filing lawsuits was led by the Pennsylvania chapter of Disabled in Action, an advocacy group founded in New York in 1970 by Philadelphia-born Judith E. Heumann (1947-2023). A survivor of childhood polio and wheelchair user, raised in Brooklyn, Heumann waged a highly publicized and successful battle to gain a teaching license in New York City. She remained a prominent leader of the disability rights movement throughout her life, including an appointment as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration.

Philadelphia attorney Stephen F. Gold (b. 1942) represented individuals, Disabled in Action, and the organization known as ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) in lawsuits over accessibility and equal opportunity. A New York-based group founded by veterans with spinal cord injuries, the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, included Philadelphia and South Jersey in a series of 1988 lawsuits to secure greater elevator access to subway stations. The organization prevailed in seeking installation of an elevator in the transportation center then under construction in downtown Camden, where the PATCO Speedline ran underground. Similarly, the U.S. District Court found that SEPTA discriminated against persons with disabilities by failing to comply with federal laws and regulations when renovating subway facilities.

Following passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Disabled in Action and twelve individuals with disabilities filed a lawsuit in 1992 to require the City of Philadelphia to install curb ramps (curb cuts) as part of any street resurfacing project. The successful suit, argued by Gold, set a precedent for other cities across the country. Curb ramps remained a decades-long issue in Philadelphia, leading to another lawsuit by Disabled in Action and others in 2019. The resulting settlement agreement, approved in 2023, ordered the City of Philadelphia to install or repair at least ten thousand curb cuts over the next fifteen years.

The disability rights movement in Greater Philadelphia unfolded through the efforts of multiple organizations and individuals, often setting nationally significant precedents. Throughout the region, vigilance by local activists remained necessary into the twenty-first century to secure and expand the civil rights of persons with disabilities.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


Pearl S. Buck

Library of Congress

Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro Virginia, yet spent much of her early life living in China. From her experience living in Asia, Buck wrote novels and biographies that led to her being awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. In 1958 Buck’s activism grew as she became the head of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Committee on Handicapped Children. At that time she lived at Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which in 1980 was designated as a National Historical Landmark and opened to the public as a museum.

In 1950 Buck wrote The Child Who Never Grew, a book which documented her relationship with her daughter and influenced attitudes toward disabled children. In 1920, Buck gave birth to her daughter, Carol, who was afflicted with Phenylketonuria (PKU) causing intellectual disabilities and other serious health issues. During the early twentieth century, many physicians and psychiatrists warned families that children with disabilities would be disastrous to their home life and advocated for these children to be institutionalized and never mentioned again. Carol was housed in the Vineland Training School in southern New Jersey to receive assistance, but Buck portrayed her daughter as someone to not to be ashamed of, showing her daughter having a life of joy and innocence. Buck donated the proceeds of The Child Who Never Grew to Carol’s school, and the book continued to play a significant role in altering perceptions of disabled children and pushing for their better treatment in society.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital

Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance

Pennhurst State School and Hospital admitted its first patient in November 1908, when it was known as the “Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic.” Pennhurst went on to admit over ten thousand patients until its closure in 1987. Patients at Pennhurst were subjected to overcrowding, abuse, and often ineffective treatment, which led to most people spending years or decades within the facility. Because of rampant abuses and inhospitable conditions, Pennhurst was the focus of disability rights litigation in Halderman v. Pennhurst (1977).

Starting as early as 1912, Pennhurst (pictured here in the 1920s) was a site of overcrowding and mistreatment due to its eugenics-driven mission of removing those with disabilities from the public. With a large disparity between the number of patients and number of staff members, many people were denied treatment for their disabilities and largely neglected. A Temple University study found that patients’ social skills declined rather than improved during their treatment within the facility.

Halderman v. Pennhurst (1977) was filed in 1974 on behalf of Pennhurst patient Terri Lee Halderman, with assistance from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, because of several unexplained injuries during her 10-year stay at the facility. Halderman was eventually joined in the lawsuit by the Parents and Family Association of Pennhurst, representing 200 parents of those who were institutionalized in Pennhurst, as well as seven other named patients who had experienced injuries such as broken bones, bruises, and cuts as well as deterioration in capabilities. Judge Raymond J. Broderick (1914-2000) decided in favor of Halderman, ruling that Pennhurst failed to supply “minimum standards for the habilitation of its residents in the least restrictive environment.”

Pennhurst continued to be the subject of multiple cases, including Youngberg v. Romeo (1982), and Halderman’s subsequent appeals reached the Supreme Court of the United States twice in 1981 and 1984. Finally in a 1985 settlement, Pennhurst was ordered to close by July 1986, and its over 400 remaining residents moved to community living arrangements for rehabilitation.

Judith Heumann

East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State

Born in Philadelphia in 1947, Judith Heumann was a lifetime advocate for disability rights. Heumann contracted polio at 18 months old after moving to Brooklyn, New York City, and used a wheelchair for mobility for the rest of her life. Due to her disability, Heumann was denied the right to traditional education at the age of five because she was considered a “fire hazard” due to her wheelchair.

In 1970, Heumann tried to become a teacher in New York and passed the written and oral examinations needed. Despite this, her teaching license was denied explicitly because of “paralysis of both lower extremities.” Heumann filed suit against the Board of Education and won, becoming the first wheelchair user to become a licensed teacher in the state of New York.

Heumann continued to profoundly impact the disability rights movement. In New York in 1970, she founded Disabled In Action, a disability civil rights advocacy organization which unifies those interested in fighting to remove public barriers for those with disabilities. She was a critical leader in the 1977 sit-in in the San Francisco federal building, which pressured federal officials to issue regulations to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which protects individuals from discrimination due to their disability. She later influenced other major pieces of legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as serving in multiple governmental advisory positions from 1993-2017 (including U.S. State Department Special Advisory for International Disability Rights at the time this photograph was taken in 2014). Judith Heumann passed away in March 2023.

Disability Rights Protests

Tom Olin Collection

While the federal lawsuit ADAPT vs. Burnley (1989) was being decided in Philadelphia, the city became the premier location for protests from various groups, notably ADAPT, the Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit. ADAPT, a disability rights advocacy group, litigated the case to seek enforcement of federal regulations for accessibility of public transportation. Over several days ADAPT staged multiple demonstrations ranging from demanding meetings with the U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh to physically shutting down public transport while displaying the difficulty of boarding a bus as a wheelchair user.

Philadelphia has a long history of fights for rights as a center of the American Revolution and a home to many subsequent movements including abolitionism and woman suffrage. This tradition inspired the third day of ADAPT protests (shown in this photograph), in which several activists donned historical colonial outfits and marched from Independence Hall to the Liberty Bell, which they encircled for several hours.

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided ADAPT vs. Burnley in favor of ADAPT. The court mandated that every new bus purchased within Philadelphia would be equipped with a lift to improve accessibility to individuals who use wheelchairs and abolished a regulatory cost cap on investment for greater accessibility in public accommodations.

Sieglinde Shapiro

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Born in 1946, Sieglinde Shapiro devoted her life to pioneering advocacy for disability civil rights in Philadelphia. Shapiro had a paralyzed leg due to childhood polio, which left her wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. During her childhood she was separated from able-bodied peers, placed in Widener Memorial School with a student and faculty body made up primarily by persons with disabilities. Shapiro went on to attend Temple University, earning her degree in English, but despite this qualification she found it very difficult to find a job due to her disability. The Philadelphia Board of Education asserted that the only place she was suitable to teach in was Widener Memorial School, where disabled people “belonged.” Eventually she was able to teach at the Institute of Disabilities at Temple University, where she educated and advocated for people with disabilities like herself.

Heavily involved in disability rights activism, Shapiro founded and led Disabled In Action of Pennsylvania, the local branch of an advocacy group founded in New York in 1970 to unite those interested in fighting to remove public barriers for those with disabilities. Through Disabled In Action, Shapiro (shown here in a photograph taken in 1981) worked with organizations such as the Public Interest Law Center to litigate access to public transportation for those with disabilities. She traveled around the country training people on the regulations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act while chairing for the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Shapiro passed away in 2004 after creating a legacy of disability rights activism in the Philadelphia area.

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Related Reading

Barnartt, Sharon, and Richard Scotch. Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999. Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 2001.  

Buck, Pearl S. The Child Who Never Grew. New York: J. Day Co., 1950. 

Carey, Allison C. On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. 

Carey, Allison C., Pamela Block, and Richard K. Scotch. Allies and Obstacles: Disability Activism and Parents of Children with Disabilities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. 

Disability Histories of Pennsylvania. Special Issue, Legacies (Fall 2017). 

Downey, Dennis B., and James W. Conroy, eds. Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 2020. 

Exploring Disability History in Pennsylvania. Special Issue, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Vol. 89, No. 3 (Summer 2022). 

Fleischer, Doris Zames, and Frieda Zames. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. 

Heumann, Judith. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. Boston: Beacon Press, 2020. 

Nielsen, Kim E. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy