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The Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD) is pleased to present our month-long blog series that will provide a brief history of significant disability policies, developments, and figures in the United States and Massachusetts throughout the past two centuries. Under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 6 Section 15LLLLL, the month of October commemorates Disability History Month.  This observance is dedicated to“increase awareness and understanding of the contributions made by persons with disabilities.”  Last week, we posted Part One: 1776-1900.

Welcome to Part Two: 1900-1960. The first half of the 20th century brought the devastation of two World Wars which sent many Americans home with permanent disabilities.  The U.S. polio epidemics would leave countless more individuals with disabling conditions, many of whom would go on to lead the disability rights movement. Massachusetts was home to many important “firsts” in disability history during this time. The period also brought advancements in science and medicine as well as social programs and policies to support people with disabilities but a long road lay ahead in terms of equal access, societal attitudes towards disability and quality of life for persons with disabilities.

Note: The Massachusetts Office on Disability recognizes that the following Timeline includes language used to describe people with disabilities that is deemed inappropriate and insensitive today.  However, we maintain that these descriptions are being used in their historical context for educational purposes. MOD’s primary mission is to advance legal rights, maximum opportunities, supportive services, accommodations and accessibility in a manner that fosters dignity and self determination.

Timeline: 1900-1960

1904: George Eyser, the first athlete with a disability to compete in the Olympic Games, wins 6 medals for the U.S. in gymnastics in St. Louis. Eyser has a prosthetic wooden leg.[1]

1906: The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind is established on July 13 as a board of five men and women, including Helen Keller, which is charged with creating a state agency to serve the blind.[2] This original commission is centered on two “residential workshops,”[3] one for men and the other for women.[4]

1907: “Eugenic Sterilization Law” spreads with Indiana becoming the first of 24 U.S. states to pass a eugenic sterilization law for “confirmed idiots, imbeciles and rapists.”[5]

1909: Geriatrics, the specialty focused on the health care of the elderly is created.[6]

1909: The first commission on aging is established in Massachusetts.[7]

1916: New York City experiences the first notable epidemic of polio in the States resulting in over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths.[8] The nationwide toll is 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths.[9] Numerous Polio survivors are left with permanent disabilities and subsequently experience environmental barriers and discrimination.[10] Many will become some of the most important leaders in the disability rights movement.[11]

1917:  British World War I veteran Wilfred Owen meets poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon who later introduces him to Robert Graves. The three men go on to create notable literary works on the subject of men disabled in battle in “the Great War.”[12]

1917: Congress creates a new Veterans benefits system that  includes disability compensation, insurance, and vocational rehabilitation for the disabled. This evolved in to what is known today as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

1918: Congress passes the first major rehabilitation program for soldiers in response to the large number of WWI veterans returning with disabilities.[13]

1919: Easter Seals is founded by Edgar Allan as the National Society for Crippled Children upon learning that children with disabilities are often hidden from society.[14] In 1934 the “seal” is designed by cartoonist J.H. Donahey who was inspired by those served by the organization who asked “simply for the right to live a normal life.”[15]  Today, Easter Seals provides support and services to over one million children and adults with disabilities each year.[16]

six colorful stamps featuring illustrations of children with physical disabilities. stamps state: "Opportunity for Crippled Children," ""Open Wide the Door for Crippled Children," "Joyous Life for Crippled Children," "For Crippled Children 1939," 1941 For Crippled Children," "Help Crippled Children."

Easter Seals stamps, 1930-1940s

1920: The Smith-Fess Act is signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, establishing the Vocational Rehabilitation program for Americans with disabilities.

1921: The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a non-profit organization is founded with the support of philanthropist M.C. Migel, who wanted to help blind World War I veterans, and Helen Keller.[17]

1925: Iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is injured in a bus accident at age 18. She sustains serious bodily injuries which cause her extreme pain relapses throughout the rest of her life. She begins painting while bedridden in the aftermath her accident.[18]

1925: Samuel Orton commences an extensive study of dyslexia. He correctly hypothesizes that the condition could be neurological rather than visual.[19]

1927: In Buck v. Bell the Supreme Court rules that the compulsory sterilization of “defectives,” including persons with intellectual disabilities is constitutional under “careful” state safeguards.[20] The ruling has never been overturned.[21]

1927: Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw invent the iron lung for polio patients undergoing treatment for respiratory muscle paralysis.[22]

 Hospital staff examine a patient in an iron lung

Hospital staff examine a patient in an iron lung during the Rhode Island polio epidemic. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United States Department of Health and Human Services.

1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt becomes the 32nd president of the United States and is re-elected for four terms before dying in office in 1945. In 1921 FDR contracted polio which left him paralyzed from the waist down. [23] The President took care to conceal his disability from the public eye.

1935: League for the Physically Handicapped forms in New York City to protest discrimination by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The League is comprised of 300 people with physical disabilities who had been turned down for WPA jobs because their applications were stamped “PH” for “physically handicapped.”[24]  The demonstrations draw national attention to the issue of disability employment[25] and the League is considered the first organization “of people with disabilities by people with disabilities.”[26]

1935: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into law, establishing an income for Americans who are unable to work, including people with disabilities.

Roosevelt sitting down signing. Standing with Roosevelt are Rep. Robert Doughton (D-NC); unknown person in shadow; Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY); Rep. John Dingell (D-MI); Rep. Joshua Twing Brooks (D-PA); the Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins; Sen. Pat Harrison (D-MS); and Rep. David Lewis (D-MD).

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill on 14 August 1935. Surrounding Roosevelt are Rep. Robert Doughton ; unknown person in shadow; Sen. Robert Wagner; Rep. John Dingell; Rep. Joshua Twing Brooks; the Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins; Sen. Pat Harrison; and Rep. David Lewis.

1936: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Randolph-Sheppard Act mandating that blind vendors be given priority to operate on federal property.[27]

1936: The Carroll Center For the Blind is founded. Named the Catholic Guild for All the Blind, it serves as the central office for the parish guilds in the Archdiocese of Boston.[28] Today, the Carroll Center located in Newton, MA provides vision rehabilitation services, vocational and transition programs, assistive technology training, educational support, and recreation opportunities for individuals who have visual impairments.[29]

1937: American musician Ray Charles (1930-2004) becomes totally blind due to glaucoma at age seven.[30] He learns to use Braille to read music.[31]

1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes a national minimum wage and through Section 14(c) also allows employers to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities for the work being performed. The floor is set at 75 percent of the national minimum wage.[32]

1938:The Wagner-O’Day Act passes, requiring federal agencies to purchase certain products made by blind individuals.[33]

1938: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt helps found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,[34] known today as the March of Dimes, with the task of building “an organization that could quickly respond to polio epidemics anywhere in the nation.”[35] FDR’s role in establishing the foundation is one reason why he is commemorated on the ten cent coin.[36]

Poster depicts a little girl being grabbed by a hooded skull figure labeled "Infantile Paralysis" with the caption "HELP ME WIN MY VICTORY!!- JOIN THE MARCH OF DIMES!"

March of Dimes Poster, 1943. Source: Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau, National Archives and records Administration. Artist: Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977

1938: The term “autism” as it is used today is introduced by Hans Asperger of Vienna University in his lecture on child psychology.[37]

1939: As World War II begins, Adolf Hitler orders the “mercy killing”[38] of the sick and disabled as part of the Nazi euthanasia program.

1939: Lou Gehrig Day is held at Yankee Stadium on July 4th in New York City. Gehrig (1903-1941), the first baseman known as the “Iron Horse,” was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).[39] He famously states “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”[40]

1940: The National Federation for the Blind, the largest organization of the blind in the U.S., is founded.[41]

1940-1950s: Medical and scientific experiments are conducted on developmentally disabled and non-disabled residents of Walter E. Fernald Development Center in Waltham, MA.[42] Residents of the institution and others like it at the time were incarcerated, abused, and malnourished.[43]  The segregation of people with disabilities into such institutions was inspired by the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.[44] The pseudoscience would be largely discredited after World War II.[45]

1941: John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy has a prefrontal lobotomy as a “cure” for lifelong mild intellectual disability and aggressive behavior at age 23.[46] After the operation fails she is totally and permanently incapacitated and then institutionalized by her family.[47]

1944: Hans Asperger defines Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger identifies a pattern of behavior and abilities that he calls “autistic psychopathy.”[48] Asperger refers to children with Asperger’s as “little professors,”[49] because of their ability to speak on their favorite subjects in great detail and recognized that their special talents could be assets in adulthood.[50]

1945: On August 11 President Harry S. Truman approves a Congressional resolution declaring the first week in October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” amidst increased public interest in the employment of people with disabilities upon the return of disabled World War II veterans.[51]

1946: The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination  (MCAD) is established as “the state’s chief civil rights agency charged with the authority to investigate, prosecute, adjudicate and resolve cases of discrimination.”[52] Today, the MCAD enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws for protected classes of people including persons with disabilities.

1947: Under the direction of President Harry S. Truman, state and local committees assemble to run “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” They campaign with movie trailers, billboards, and radio and television ads to sway the public to hire people with disabilities.[53]

1948: The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City is founded by Dr. Howard A. Rusk. Rusk develops methods to rehabilitate injured World War II veterans. His theories become the foundation for modern rehabilitation medicine.[54] Dr. Rusk said that “The goal of total rehabilitation is to teach the physically handicapped person to live not just within the limits of his disability but to live to the hilt of his capabilities.”[55]

1950s: The barrier-free movement begins in the U.S. through the efforts of U.S. Veterans Administration, the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, the National Easter Seals Society, and other people with disabilities. The movement brings about national standards for “barrier-free” buildings.[56]

1950: The Arc For People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in founded by a small group of parents of individuals with intellectual disabilities who wished to raise their children at home rather than have them institutionalized, the typical recommendation at the time.[57]

1952: Polio epidemic results in a record 57,628 cases.[58]

1952: The first Community Mobility Program in the world to teach safe travel skills to the blind and visually impaired is created at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts.[59]

1953: Clinical director at the Fernald Development Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, Clemens Benda conducts a radiation experiment on individuals with intellectual disabilities without consent. Benda invited 100 teenage students to participate in a “science club” promising outings and snacks. Benda obtained parental consent for the students to be part of an experiment in which “blood samples are taken after a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium.”[60] The participants’ oatmeal was secretly laced with radioactive substances.[61]

1953: The “Father of the Independent Living movement,” Ed Roberts (1939-1995) contracts polio.[62] Roberts becomes paralyzed from the neck down with use of only a finger and sleeps in an iron lung.[63]

1954: Congress passes the Vocational Rehabilitation Amendments of 1954 which increase the scope of the VR program. VR is effective in getting thousands of people with disabilities employed. The Amendments provide funding for over 100 university-based rehabilitation programs and research that eventually leads to the establishment of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.[64]

1955: On April 12 it is announced that Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine using the March of Dimes donations of millions of Americans.[65]

1956: Congress passes the Social Security Amendments of 1956 creating the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program for disabled workers with disabilities ages 50 to 64.[66]

We hope you have enjoyed reading about the rich and fascinating history of Americans with disabilities.  Next week, we will post about disability history from 1960-1990.

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[1] Olympic Games. “Medalist Search Results.”  http://www.olympic.org/content/results-and-medalists/. Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[2] Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.  “History.” http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/mcb/history.html. Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[6] Social Security Administration. “Chronology.” http://www.ssa.gov/history/1900.html. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[7] Id.

[8] Smithsonian National Museum of American History. http://amhistory.si.edu/polio/americanepi/communities.htm. “Whatever Happened to Polio?” Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[13] Id.

[14] Easter Seals. “History.” http://www.easterseals.com/who-we-are/history/. Retrieved 6 October 2015. Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[15] Id.

[16] Easter Seals. “History.” http://www.easterseals.com/who-we-are/history/. Retrieved 6 October 2015. Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[17] American Foundation for the Blind. History. http://www.afb.org/info/about-us/history/12.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[18] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[25] Id.

[26] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[27] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[28] The Carroll Center. “Our History.” https://carroll.org/about-the-carroll-center/our-history/. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[29] The Carroll Center. “About the Carroll Center.” https://carroll.org/about-the-carroll-center/. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[30] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[31] Id.

[32] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[33] Id.

[34] March of Dimes. “A History of the March of Dimes.” http://www.marchofdimes.org/mission/a-history-of-the-march-of-dimes.aspx.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[35] Id.

[36] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[37]Autism UK Independent. “History of Autism.” http://www.autismuk.com/?page_id=1043. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[38] Disability Social History Project. “Disability History Timeline.” http://www.disabilityhistory.org/timeline_new.html#y3.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[39] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[40] Id.

[41] National Federation for the Blind. “Who We Are.” https://nfb.org/who-we-are. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[42] Daly, Marie E.  “History of the Walter E. Fernald Development Center.” City of Waltham.http://www.city.waltham.ma.us/sites/walthamma/files/file/file/fernald_center_history.pdf.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[47] Id.

[48] Autism UK Independent. “History of Autism.” http://www.autismuk.com/?page_id=1043. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[52] Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. “About the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.” http://www.mass.gov/mcad/about/. Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[53] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[54] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[55] Smithsonian National Museum of American History. http://amhistory.si.edu/polio/howpolio/scimed.htm.  “Whatever Happened to Polio?” Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[56] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[57] The Arc. “History of the Arc.” http://www.thearc.org/who-we-are/history. Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[58] Smithsonian National Museum of American History. http://amhistory.si.edu/polio/americanepi/communities.htm. “Whatever Happened to Polio?” Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[59] The Carroll Center. “Our History.” https://carroll.org/about-the-carroll-center/our-history/. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

[60] National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. “Timeline.” http://www.ncld-youth.info/index.php?id=61.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[61] Id.

[62] Disability Social History Project. “Disability History Timeline.” http://www.disabilityhistory.org/timeline_new.html#y3.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[63]  “Edward V. Roberts, 56, Champion of the Disabled”The New York Times, J. MICHAEL ELLIOTT, March 16, 1995.

[64] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[65] Smithsonian National Museum of American History. http://amhistory.si.edu/polio/index.htm. “Whatever Happened to Polio?” Retrieved 6 October 2015.

[66] United States Department of Labor. “Disability & Employment: A Timeline.” http://www.dol.gov/featured/ada/alternate.version.timeline.htm.  Retrieved 6 October 2015.

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