Pay Your Bill
The History and Evolution of the Disability Rights Movement, as told by a disabled person

By Disability Rights Advocate and Writer Emily Brown • disability rights movement, disability rights, disability history, disability rights advocacy, disabled people history, people with disabilities history, the Capitol Crawl, American Disabilities Act Capitol Crawl, Social media and accessibility, social justice and disability • February 23, 2023

As a person with cerebral palsy, I was never taught about disability history in school. The most I got was a short paragraph in a textbook about the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to inspire in me a passion for disability justice, working against both systematic and interpersonal ableism.

In recent years, I’ve learned about the history of disabled people like me, and one of the biggest parts of disability history is the disability rights movement. The disability rights movement is a key part of American history, and everyone, with or without a disability, should know disability history. To get you started, here are 4 important things about the disability rights movement.

The movement started at a camp
According to Good Housekeeping magazine, from 1953 to 1971, Camp Jened was a camp for disabled children and teenagers in upstate New York. Through the bonds they formed, campers found an escape from daily discrimination and experienced some freedoms they didn’t have in the outside world. For the first time in their lives, campers experienced basic rights, such as listening to music and forming romantic relationships. The campers realized a life like this outside of camp would be possible, if only they had the proper rights and accommodations. They also realized they needed to take matters into their own hands, to fight and advocate for their rights.

In 2020, the documentary “Crip Camp” about Camp Jened, was released on Netflix. The documentary follows the story of how Camp Jened led to the disability rights movement and then to the Capitol Crawl. Two people from Camp Jened and the disability rights movement, Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht, wrote and directed the documentary, so it’s told through the lens of the people that led the movement. In People Magazine, Nicole Newnham said, "We realized, ‘Wow, we could really trace a line from this motley little hippie summer camp to this small empowered group of people that changed the world.” This documentary was important not only for telling the story of Camp Jened, but also because it helped the disability community take control of the narrative.

60 people crawled for their rights

According to, “On March 13, 1990, over 1,000 people marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When they got there, about 60 of them cast aside their wheelchairs and other mobility aids and crawled up the Capitol steps.” The Capitol Crawl, as it became known, was important, both in the physical and symbolic sense. The struggle with accessibility was on display for everyone to see. It really showed that the issue wasn’t disabled people; rather, the world simply wasn’t built for disabled people.

As a disabled person, it angers me that disabled people like me had to risk their safety and push themselves past their physical and emotional limits to get basic rights we should’ve had to begin with. Some argue that seeing the disability struggle in person was important, as well as showing how much barriers impede our daily lives. I would agree, but I wish it could have been done in a way that was safer and more humane for disabled people.

Fortunately, all the hard work and sacrifice paid off because, according to The New York Times, on July 26, 1990, former President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. The ADA National Network states, “The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation and all public and private places that are open to the general public.” This law has allowed disabled people to integrate more into society and live the lives they deserve.

An eight-year-old joined the crawl

According to, “The youngest person to climb the steps that day [of the Capitol Crawl] was eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who by then had already been protesting for two years. At age six, she attended her first protest in Phoenix to advocate for accessible buses with [American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today] ADAPT, the same disability rights group that helped organize the 1990 march in D.C.” According to, the Phoenix protest made such a big impression on her that she has dedicated her life to fighting for disability justice. She has continued to be an advocate for disability rights. In 2020, Jennifer wrote a children's book called “All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything, the story about how she became a child advocate.

Social media has connected disabled people

As seen by the Capitol Crawl, accessibility, or the lack thereof, plays a large role in how people with disabilities are, or are not, able to live their lives. According to Cripple Media, social media has become an important accessibility tool because it allows disabled people to communicate with the world, without having to leave the house. It also has allowed more disabled people to spread information about the disability rights movement. Through social media, we can connect with other disabled people across the world to communicate and learn from each other.  

I learned about disability justice from social media and online resources. Not all people with disabilities can march in the streets or climb up 78 steps, but many of us can use platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Twitter to make our voices heard.

Here are a few other resources to learn more about the disability rights movement:

Americans with Disabilities Act Official Website

The 504 Sit in Protests of 1971

Capitol Crawl to Access for All

Activists Brought Social and Physical Obstacles to Light to Help Pass the ADA

Netflix's Crip Camp Doc Is Just the Beginning of the Story — Here's What to Know