Equal Protection for Other Groups


People with disabilities make up one of the last groups whose civil rights have been recognized. For a long time, they were denied employment and access to public education, especially if they were mentally or developmentally challenged. Many were merely institutionalized. A eugenics movement in the United States in the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries sought to encourage childbearing among physically and mentally fit whites and discourage it among those with physical or mental disabilities. Many states passed laws prohibiting marriage among people who had what were believed to be hereditary “defects.” Among those affected were people who were blind or deaf, those with epilepsy, people with mental or developmental disabilities, and those suffering mental illnesses. In some states, programs existed to sterilize people considered “feeble minded” by the standards of the time, without their will or consent.See Edward J. Larson. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in The Deep South. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; Rebecca M. Kluchin. 2009. Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America 1950–1980. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. When this practice was challenged by a “feeble-minded” woman in a state institution in Virginia, the Supreme Court, in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, upheld the right of state governments to sterilize those people believed likely to have children who would become dependent upon public welfare.Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927). Some of these programs persisted into the 1970s, as Figure shows.Kim Severson, “Thousands Sterilized, A State Weighs Restitution,” New York Times, 9 December 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/10/us/redress-weighed-for-forced-sterilizations-in-north-carolina.html?_r=1&hp.

A map of North Carolina titled “Peak of Eugenic Program in North Carolina, July 1946-June 1968”. A legend reads “Sterilizations performed by county” and marks the counties into six categories. Seven counties are marked “10 or less”. Twenty-six counties are marked “11-29”. Twenty-five counties are marked “30-49”. Twenty-seven counties are marked “50-99”. Eleven counties are marked “100-399”. One county is marked “Over 400”.
The map shows the number of sterilizations performed by the state in each of the counties of North Carolina between July 1946 and June 1968. Nearly five hundred sterilizations took place during this time period in the purple county.

By the 1970s, however, concern for extending equal opportunities to all led to the passage of two important acts by Congress. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in federal employment or in programs run by federal agencies or receiving federal funding. This was followed by the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which required public schools to educate children with disabilities. The act specified that schools consult with parents to create a plan tailored for each child’s needs that would provide an educational experience as close as possible to that received by other children.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) greatly expanded opportunities and protections for people of all ages with disabilities. It also significantly expanded the categories and definition of disability. The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment based on disability. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations available to workers who need them. Finally, the ADA mandates that public transportation and public accommodations be made accessible to those with disabilities. The Act was passed despite the objections of some who argued that the cost of providing accommodations would be prohibitive for small businesses.

Link to learning graphic

The community of people with disabilities is well organized in the twenty-first century, as evidenced by the considerable network of disability rights organizations in the United States.