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We cannot and should not root the origin of our history solidly in the 20th century since there has been an eternal existence of chronic disease and disability and also personal, social, and political attempts both to deal with and to deny them.  Without this sense of history, there is no societal or even personal appreciation of the depth of the fear of disability. Without appreciation of the depth of the fear of disability, there is a naivete that “wrongs” about disability can be “righted” by single actions like the ADA.  Without recognition of its presence through both time and space we will seek the elimination and prevention of disability as our primary goals rather than its integration, acceptance, and ultimately, its appreciation.

Irving Zola
  • Disabled people have shared a history of oppression and marginalization.
  • Although there are variations in response to disability across time and cultures, there are common themes and patterns of euthanasia, sterilization, segregation, institutionalization, segregation, abuse, neglect, and stigma.
  • Policies and practices remain that serve to control and marginalize disabled people – not invisible, but often not fully visible to the untrained observer.
  • Understanding the history of marginalization and oppression helps to illuminate the ways that these patterns persist in current responses to disability.
  • Understanding the struggle for civil rights helps us to appreciate the significance of access and inclusion.

Read, Engage, Reflect




  • What main points do you take away from engaging with these materials?
  • What is their significance?
  • What is the connection between key historical activities and the status of disabled people today? 
  • Do you think rigid eligibility requirements and complex accommodations process are what disability activists were fighting for?
  • What role have service professionals played in the history of disability?

Why Does This Matter?

Service providers who understand disability history and oppression tend to: 

  • Recognize oppression, marginalization and discrimination in minority groups
  • Recognize and explore the role of their personal and professional power and privilege
  • Collaborate with allies to organize speakers and events that celebrate and respect diversity and difference
  • Challenge the campus community to appreciate diversity and difference 
  • Discuss design strategies with faculty when addressing barriers in course design

Service providers who do not understand or appreciate disability history and oppression tend to: 

  • Organize disability awareness activities that include simulation and information that problematizes disability
  • Disregard the role of their personal and professional power and privilege
  • Ignore information on the history of oppression and discrimination of disabled people
  • Focus on attributes of the student instead of design when communicating with faculty
  • Establish policies and procedures designed to manage the workload for staff and faculty with little thought of the impact on students

Next Page: Disability Studies