Civil Rights

The concept of civil rights emerged in disability advocacy in the sixties and seventies. Section 504 of the 1973 federal Rehabilitation Act made it illegal for public entities to discriminate because of disability. It required that people receiving services have an individual, written rehabilitation plan. Although left out of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the DD Act of 1975 created a Bill of Rights for citizens with disabilities and mandated their involvement in planning at all levels. Also in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act dealt a major blow to the exclusion and marginalization of children with disabilities by public school systems. Congress amended the Fair Housing Act In 1988 to protect people with disabilities from discrimination related to housing rentals, sales, and financing.

“We were getting a lot of mail telling us that this is going to put people out of work.”

Al Tolbert

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the civil rights landmark, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many individuals in Indiana were instrumental both in the ground work leading up to its passage and in the significant effort required for its implementation. It was a struggle. In southern Indiana, Paralyzed Hoosier Veterans president Al Tolbert recalls the animosity toward the legislation. “We were getting a lot of mail telling us that this is going to put people out of work; it's going to be a hindrance for small business.”

Justin Dart Jr., who became known as “the Father of the ADA,” energized advocates such as Nancy Griffin with his visionary presence. Nancy was later instrumental in establishing an ADA Training Network in Indiana. She recalls that Dart, who used a wheelchair, “got in his little red pickup truck” and drove across the country to Indiana. He was “an incredible man who wore a soft, dove-colored gray hat.”

President George H.W. Bush Signing the Americans with Disabilities Act

Physical access to public places had been sorely lacking prior to the ADA. When Tony Williams arrived in Indianapolis at age nineteen in 1977, he was fleeing gang violence in Chicago. He used a wheelchair due to a gunshot injury, but found himself living in an inaccessible building. “Fifteen steps -- one wheelchair at the bottom and one at the top. I would physically lift myself.” Disability advocate Karen Vaughn says she was fortunate to have a van in which to get around the city at that time. People with disabilities were largely invisible. “When I would go out, I would be the only person in the shopping mall, or wherever I went, that used a wheelchair.” 

"Fifteen steps -- one wheelchair at the bottom and one at the top."

Enactment of the law was not accompanied by a guarantee of compliance, however. Litigation has been employed to enforce provisions of the ADA when other methods have failed. In 1998 for example, Everybody Counts Center for Independent Living and eight northwest Indiana residents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the Indiana Department of Transportation had violated the ADA by ignoring riders’ complaints and failing to oversee federal funding. Nationally, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision (Olmstead v. L.C.) in 1999 held that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination under the Act’s Title II.