Disability Law History

Below we've compiled a brief history of key laws and cases that have created the foundation for disability law today.

Brief History of Disability Law

1965 - The Older Americans Act of 1965 was the first federal-level initiative aimed at providing comprehensive services for older adults. It created the National Aging Network comprising the federal Administration on Aging, State Units on Aging, and local Area Agencies on Aging. The network provides funding (based primarily on the percentage of an area's population 60 and older) for nutrition and supportive home and communitybased services, disease prevention/health promotion services, elder rights programs, the National Family Caregiver Support Program, and the Native American Caregiver Support Program.

1973 - The (American) Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became law, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in federal programs and services and all programs or services receiving federal funds.

1975 - The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, PL 94-142, (renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA in 1990) became law in the U.S. The IDEA declared that children with disabilities could not be excluded from public school because of their disability, and that school districts were required to provide special services to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The law also required that children with disabilities be taught in a setting that resembled as closely as possible the regular school program, while also meeting their special needs.

1975 - Colorado Civil Rights Act added physical disability as a protected class.

1975 - Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-103). Each state was required to have a statewide protection and advocacy system in place by October 1, 1977 to safeguard the rights of people with developmental disabilities. The system had to be independent of any state agency that provided residential or other services to people with developmental disabilities. The system was to provide legal and other advocacy to (1) protect people with developmental disabilities from abuse and neglect and (2) advocate for them when they had been denied disability rights. Federal funding was provided to operate these new organizations. The program is now known as Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities (PADD).

1988 - The (American) Fair Housing Act was amended to protect people with disabilities from housing discrimination in the areas of rentals, sales, and financing, as outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The amendment also provided that reasonable modifications had to be made to existing buildings and accessibility had to be built into new multi-family housing units.

1990 - The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, providing comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Closely modeled after the Civil Rights Act and Section 504, the law was the most sweeping disability rights legislation in American history. It mandated that local, state, and federal governments and programs be accessible; that employers with more than 15 employees make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities and not discriminate against otherwise qualified workers with disabilities; and that public accommodations and commercial facilities make “reasonable modifications” to ensure access for people with disabilities, and not discriminate against them. The ADA also required access in public transportation and communication.

1999 – The Protection & Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS) was established in 1999 when the Ticket to Work and Work Incentive Improvement Act became law. It provides funding to enable the P&A systems to help beneficiaries of Social Security secure or regain employment. 

1999 –U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead decision required mental health services to be provided in the most integrated setting possible, which helped many people with mental illness leave institutions.

2002 - The Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA was signed into law on October 29, 2002. HAVA is a federal law that mandates that all states and localities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, making the voting process accessible to people with disabilities.

2003 - Center for Legal Advocacy v. Hammons. The 10th Circuit ruled that Protection & Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness programs were entitled access to peer review and quality assurance records.  This ruling has clarified P&A access authority nation-wide.

2006 - The Protection & Advocacy for Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (PATBI) Program was designed to improve access to health and other services for all individuals with brain injury and their families. PATBI protects the rights of adults with TBI and ensures access to services for students with TBI.