In celebration of D.R.E.A.M., this exhibition honors the history, challenges, and accomplishments of the disability rights movement and focuses on New York State’s role in providing people with disabilities protections, services, and support to succeed in the workforce. Coinciding with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a national movement that celebrates and promotes hiring people with disabilities, this exhibit explores how people with disabilities fought for equal rights and continue to advocate for an inclusive and diverse workforce, free from discrimination.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) was enacted in 1945 through Public Law 176 to recognize the first week of October as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. The name was changed in 1962 to remove “physically” from the title and in 1988 Congress changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month, recognizing it to be held throughout the whole month of October. This year’s national NDEAM theme, “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” highlights the significant contributions and efforts of people with disabilities toward creating an inclusive workforce.
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. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, acts of advocacy sparked national change.
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 public outcry in 1972. The act of deinstitutionalization, or closure of institutions, not only aided in changing public perception of people with disabilities, but also garnered support for the creation of independent living centers.
Alongside deinstitutionalization, national protests addressed concerns such as the right to have accessible transportation, improving living conditions, and the right to work without facing discrimination.
In 1977, activists’ successful sit-ins at state and federal buildings across the country enacted the delayed regulations of Section 504 which prohibited federally funded organizations from discriminating against anyone with a disability.
Jim Gonsalves at the 1977 San Francisco demonstration in support of Section 504. Photo courtesy of Anthony Tusler, AboutDisability.
The 1990 “Capitol Crawl” was the last event of ADAPT’s Wheels of Justice march from the White House to the Capitol demanding for a swift passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Capitol Crawl demonstrated the obstacles people with disabilities had to face on a daily basis.
Used by permission. © Tom Olin Collection. The University of Toledo Libraries.
At the age of 3, Carabello was sent to Willowbrook State School where he remained for 18 years. After being instrumental in getting the institution shut down, he went on to be the founder and Executive Director of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.
NYC: ATWORK is an organization that is part of the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities that provides resources for jobseekers.
Teacher and activist Judith Heumann sued the NYC Board of Education for denying her teacher’s license due to her wheelchair being seen as a fire hazard. She went on to be a leader within the disability rights movement.
Curtis Brewer was a lawyer and activist. He served as a press liaison at the Towaway Edict Protest in 1967 which led to the development of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on the Handicapped in 1968.
1993 Disability Independence Parade NYC
A large parade and rally gathered near Madison Square in New York City in celebration of the Disability Rights Movement. This image includes prominent activists such as Judy Heumann and Justin Dart.
Pat Figueroa launched the first Center for Independent Living in New York State and created the 504 Democrats group that have been influential in achieving progress for disability rights.
Eunice Fiorito was founder and president of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. She organized marches and advocated for better employment, government assistance and support programs.
1973 Rehabilitation Act
This act remade vocational rehabilitation laws and grants into a package that increased protections and services provided to adults and children with disabilities.
1990 Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local governments, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
1999 Olmstead v. L.C.
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.
Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR)
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.
Today, as advocates work to uphold the promises of the ADA, 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.
In New York State, only thirty-five percent of people with disabilities are employed. In 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul established the Office of the Chief Disability Officer which seeks, in part, to increase the employment rate among New Yorkers with disabilities, but as a whole, to make New York the most integrated, inclusive and accessible place to live.
By prioritizing the needs of the disability community, New York State remains committed to protecting New Yorkers’ rights to live and work free from discrimination.