New York State Capitol
Governor's Reception Room, 2nd Floor
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In October, we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a national movement that celebrates and promotes hiring people with disabilities. New York has expanded this focus into D.R.E.A.M to focus on honoring the rich disability rights movement that has provided opportunities, protections, and services to succeed in the workforce. This year’s NDEAM theme “Advancing Access and Equity: Then, Now, and Next,” celebrates 50 years since the passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first federal legislation to address access and equity for people with disabilities. In addition, this exhibit honors the memories of two New York trailblazers we lost this year. Their advocacy broke down barriers and created new pathways for people with disabilities both in and beyond the workforce and paved the way for future legislation.
There is a long history of segregating people with disabilities from society by confining them in institutions or blocking access to services needed to live and work.
Image courtesy of The New York Public Library
Institutionalization was a state-supported system of confining people with disabilities in overcrowded and unhygienic institutions. An inside look at the horrendous conditions of the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island caused a public outcry in 1972 to close such institutions and support the creation of independent living centers.
The Gang of 19, 1978
After 1972, there was an increase in protests around the nation. In 1978, nineteen people got out of their wheelchairs and stopped traffic at a busy intersection in Colorado to protest the inaccessibility of the public transportation system. This eventually led to the creation of what is known today as ADAPT (American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today). In 1990, ADAPT organized The Capitol Crawl in Washington D.C. to call for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Capitol Crawl Used by permission.
© Tom Olin Collection. The University of Toledo Libraries.
The Rehabilitation Act signed in 1973 remade vocational rehabilitation laws and grants into a package that increased protections and services provided to adults and children with disabilities. While the act itself was historic, years went by without any clear implementation of regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 prohibited federally funded organizations from discriminating against anyone with a disability. Spearheaded by Judy Heumann, activists’ successful sit-ins at state and federal buildings across the country in 1977 enacted the delayed regulations of Section 504.
Jim Gonsalves at the 1977 San Francisco demonstration in support of Section 504. Photo courtesy of Anthony Tusler, AboutDisability.
The ADA prohibited discrimination based on disability in employment, state and local governments, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
In Olmstead v. L.C., the United States Supreme Court held that people with disabilities had the right to live and receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.
Offered through the New York State Education Department, ACCES-VR assists individuals with disabilities to achieve and maintain employment and to support independent living through training, education, rehabilitation, and career development.
Judith “Judy” Heumann (1947-2023) is regarded as the “mother” of the disability rights movement. Diagnosed with polio as an infant, she was not allowed to attend New York City schools. Decades later, she became the first person using a wheelchair to teach in a New York State school. Heumann went on to become an influential teacher and activist, serving under both President Clinton's and President Obama’s campaigns increasing awareness of people with disabilities.
Sally Johnston (1942-2023) was an activist for people with disabilities from Syracuse, New York. She founded Disabled In Action of Greater Syracuse and worked tirelessly to improve public transportation for people with disabilities. She is most known for her founding of the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program (CDPAP) for Onondaga County. In honor of her work, AccessCNY established the Sally Johnston Advocacy Center after her retirement in 2020.
Today, as advocates work to uphold the promises of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the legacies of trailblazers such as Judy Heumann, there is a greater focus on the integration of people with disabilities living independently in their own communities, making transportation more accessible, and creating an inclusive workforce.
On July 27, 2023, a consortium of people with disabilities across the panoply of disabilities gathered with Governor Kathy Hochul at the New York State Executive Mansion to commemorate the anniversary of the ADA. This event, the first of its kind in New York State, resonated with communities and demonstrates New York’s commitment to prioritizing the needs of the disability community and protecting New Yorker’s rights to live and work free from discrimination.