The Museum of disABILITY History

Timeline from The Museum of disABILITY History

400 B.C.

Hippocrates, the Greek physician, wrote the first work on epilepsy disputing that the disorder was a curse or caused by the gods. He believed that epilepsy was a brain disorder. "It is thus with regard to the disease called Sacred: it appears to me to be nowise more divine or more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from the originates like other affections. Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder, because it is not at all like to other diseases."

15th Century

The court fool was a part of the medieval and renaissance court society. Some jesters were disabled either physically or mentally.


Malleus Maleficarum, or translated "The Hammer of the Witches," is a witch hunting manual which discusses seizures as a characteristic of witches. The manual was written by two Dominican Friars with the authority of the pope.


Elizabethan Poor Laws were passed from 1583 to 1601 in order to aid the deserving poor, orphaned and crippled. The 1601 law was a consolidation of prior legislation and laid some of the burden on society by charging a "poor rate" on owners of property. Queen Elizabeth's government divided the poor into three groups. The disabled poor were placed in the group labeled "helpless poor."


The Salem Witch Trials resulted in the hanging of 19 witches, both male and female. It has been purported that some of the 19 were either feebleminded, of little or no education, or insane. Fear of what was different played into this community's persecution of so-called witches.


The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, with the help of Benjamin Franklin, is the first hospital to create a special section for the treatment of mental illness and mental retardation. In 1756, these patients would be chained to the walls of the basement and put on display for a fee.


Virginia establishes the first hospital solely for the treatment of "idiots, lunatics and other people of unsound mind."


Phillipe Pinel, a doctor at La Bicetre, a Paris asylum, unchains the mental patients at the institution. The unchaining of the insane became known as the "moral treatment" and was replaced with the use of straitjackets. Seven years later he would create a four part classification system of major mental illnesses, a first of its kind.


Jean-Marc Itard began his training sessions with Victor, the "Wild boy of Aveyron." Over the course of one year Victor is able to form the word "milk" or "lait" in French using metal letters. Itard is later discouraged when he realizes that Victor can only say the word and does not actually relate it to the object.


Jean Marc Gaspard Itard attempts to teach and train Victor the "Wild Boy of Aveyron." Itard, whose career started in the medical field, devised methods of instruction that are still influential.


Thomas H. Gallaudet established the first free American school for the deaf and hearing impaired in 1817. The school was built in Hartford, Connecticut and was named the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons and later became known as the American School for the Deaf. Gallaudet was also an advocate of manual training in all schools. Vocational education was added to his school's curriculum in 1822.


The Perkins School for the Blind is opened in Boston, Massachusetts by Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe became the country's leading expert on educating the disabled. In 1848, Howe establishes the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and Youth, one of the first of its kind in the United States. His most famous student was Laura Bridgman, a blind and deaf girl, who became very popular with the public.


Jean Etienne Esquirol publishes Des Maladies Mentales. Esquirol was the first to distinguish between mental illness and mental retardation. He also established a classification system for mental disabilities.


Edouard Seguin opened the first school for the severely retarded in France. His methods for educating mentally disabled children by using sensory training became famous throughout the world. In 1850 Seguin immigrated to the United States and established other teaching centers that utilized his methods.


Dorothea Dix advocates for separation of the disabled incarcerated in penitentiaries and poorhouses. Her efforts lead to the establishment of 32 state run mental institutions across the United States.


As a result of the social movement led by Dorothea Dix, the first asylum for the mentally ill is built in Trenton, New Jersey. Dix is able to convince several other states to do the same. Her work with the disabled that she found in jails convinced her that there was a need for separate facilities.


Hervey B. Wilbur opened his private school for idiots in Barre, Massachusetts. The Institution for Idiots was in a modest house with about 12 idiot students. Wilbur's system of education for the feebleminded was eventually adopted by several other institutions in the United States.


The Syracuse State School opened with the help of Dr. Hervey Wilbur. The objective of the Syracuse State School was to train "improvable" cases with as much academic work as possible. From there children were trained in either domestic arts or farm work.


James B. Richards opened the Private Institute for Imbeciles in Harlem, New York. Richards, a veteran teacher of the mentally disabled, began work with Samuel Gridley Howe at the Idiotic Asylum of Massachusetts in 1848. Richard's students of his institution experienced dramatic improvements.


Cerebral Palsy was first classified by the British surgeon William Little. It was first named Little's Disease but was also known as Cerebral Paralysis.


John Langdon Down publishes the first clinical description of what is later known as Down syndrome.


Packard, E.P.W. The Prisoners' Hidden Life or Insane Asylums Unveiled. Chicago: Published by the Author, 1868.

Written as an expose on insane asylums in the 19th century, the author advocates for sweeping changes in the institutional system. Institutionalized herself, the author offers a first hand account from inside the insane asylum.


The first wheelchair patent was registered with the United States patent office.


Newark State School opened as an experimental branch of Syracuse State School in 1878 and became an independent institution in 1885. The original intention of the institution was to instruct females only. This changed with the first boys being admitted in 1932.


National Association for the Deaf founded to advocate for reforms on behalf of the deaf. Robert P. McGregor is first president. First national convention held in Cincinnati, Ohio. Edwin Booth, Chair of the convention states: "We have interests peculiar to ourselves which can be taken care of by ourselves."


The term "eugenics" is coined by Sir Francis Galton.


National Fraternal Society of the Deaf advocates for the ability to buy life insurance and obtain drivers' licenses. NFSD had its origins at the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint, Michigan. Peter N. Heller is the Society's first president.



Indiana passes the first eugenic sterilization law.

Maria Montessori opens her first Casa dei Bambini or "House of Children." Montessori developed a successful program of education for learning disabled children that became widely popular. She went on to open several schools throughout the world and in the United States based on her method of developmental stages. She was greatly influenced by Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin.


Clifford Beers publishes his autobiography, A Mind That Found Itself, advocating for change in mental institutions. A year after the publication, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene is formed to advocate for changes to the mental health system.


Dr. Harry Haiselden allows a disabled newborn to perish and promotes this as a way to reduce the disabled population. In 1916 the movie "The Black Stork" is produced to further advocate the practice.



Lewis M. Terman perfected the use of the IQ test for American populations. Known as the Stanford-Binet scale, Terman convinced American educators of the need for intelligence testing. Terman proposed that with the use of intelligence testing, feebleminded students could be separated into special classes that focused on "concrete and practical" instruction to become efficient workers.



Franklin Roosevelt contracts polio. Elected President of the United States in 1932, Roosevelt tries to hide his disability.

American Foundation for the Blind formed. Helen Keller raises funds for the foundation.


Buck v. Bell is heard in the Supreme Court of the United States. The court rules in favor of forced sterilization of the feeble-minded.


p>Franklin Roosevelt helps to establish the Warm Springs Foundation for the rehabilitation of polio patients in Warm Springs, Georgia. One year later he ran successfully for New York Governor. Roosevelt had visited the naturally warm springs to relieve his paralysis from polio in 1924 and built his home there as well.


The first Iron Lung was invented by Harvard medical researchers Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw. Polio patients that had difficulty or were unable to breathe would be placed in the iron machines to aid inflating and deflating the lungs.



The League of the Physically Handicapped is founded in New York City. The League protests discrimination against disabled people regarding placement in federal works programs such as the WPA. They use sit-ins, picket lines and demonstrations to draw attention to their cause.


National Foundation for the Blind is formed in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania by Jacobus ten Broek. They advocate for "white cane laws" for pedestrians to ensure safety and input from the blind for a variety of programs.

American Federation of the Physically Handicapped is formed by Paul Strachan. The group advocates for the end of job discrimination and the establishment of a National Employ the Handicapped Week. In 1958 the federation is dissolved and becomes the National Association of Physically Handicapped.


Rosemary Kennedy is lobotomized and sent to the St. Coletta School in Jefferson, Wisconsin two years later in 1943. She spent 57 years at the school until she passed away at the age of 86.


The classification of autism was introduced by Dr. Leo Kanner of John Hopkins University. Kanner used the term early infantile autism and the characteristics he described in a paper published in The Nervous Child are still included in the autism spectrum of disorder.


Truman passes Public Law 176: National Employ the Handicapped Week. National "Employ the Handicapped Week" was created and signed by President Harry Truman as Public Law 176. The week was established to create more awareness of the possibilities available to employ the physically handicapped. In 1962, "Employ the Handicapped Week" expanded to include all disabilities and was later changed from just one week to a full month in 1988.


Cerebral Palsy Society of New York City is formed by parents. It is the first chapter of United Cerebral Palsy Association.

National Mental Health Foundation established by attendants of mental institutions to show the bad treatment of residents.


National Paraplegic Foundation established to advocate for disability rights.

We Are Not Alone established as a mental patients' self-help group at Rockland State Hospital in NY City.


The National Association for Retarded Citizens was established in 1950. The organization has influenced legislation and public perception regarding retarded individuals.



Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine that went through massive testing in the United States and Canada in 1954. The United States government sanctioned the vaccine in 1955 but it eventually caused 10 deaths and 260 cases of polio.


Medical experiments are conducted on 100 boys at the Fernald School in Waverly, Massachusetts. The boys were subjected to radioactive elements in their food to determine the effects.



Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: Separate but equal schools is considered unconstitutional. Lead to the Civil Rights movement giving momentum to disability rights movement.

The National Association for Retarded Children along with President Dwight Eisenhower declared the first "National Retarded Children's Week" in 1954. This week was established to create awareness among the general public about the need for funding and legislation for the education of mentally retarded children. Funds and legislation were desperately needed to build schools for disabled children.


Dissolved and becomes National Association of Physically Handicapped.


First Paralympics Games held in Rome, Italy. They were officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee.


Dr. Robert Guthrie's PKU (phenylketonuria) newborn screening test is ready to be implemented. PKU is a heredity disease that causes severe brain damage and leads to mental retardation. The test, a simplified version of prior tests, requires only a prick of a newborns blood placed on filter paper. A trial of the test is implemented on almost 3,000 residents of the Newark State Institution near Rochester, New York.



The University of California at Berkeley admitted its first significantly disabled student, Edward Roberts. Roberts went on to become a leader and educator in the disability rights movement. In 1970, Roberts founded the Physically Disabled Students Program at Berkeley.



A new polio vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. His form of the vaccine was taken orally instead of the earlier syringe method.

John Hessler, Ed Roberts and others form the Rolling Quads at U of C Berkeley advocating for access on the campus and surrounding community.

The Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Health Center Construction Act was passed. John F. Kennedy signed the bill into law on October 31, 1963.

President Kennedy addresses Congress for the reduction of the number of persons confined to residential institutions. He asks that ways be found to reintegrate those released back into the community. This may be considered the start to deinstitutionalization that was popular in the 1970's.


Civil Rights Act is passed outlawing discrimination based on race. Framework for disability rights legislation.


Medicare and Medicaid are established under the Social Security Amendments. Medicaid established health insurance for Americans considered disabled.

Autism Society of America formed by parents of autistic children to advocate for services.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy visits Willowbrook State School and labeled the deplorable conditions a "snake pit." His visit lead to several published articles on the problems at the school in the Staten Island Advance. Seven years later Geraldo Rivera televised the dilapidated school.


Judith Heumann establishes Disabled in Action in New York City. The organization demonstrates against unfair hiring practices and uses litigation for disability rights.



The Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children brought about a lawsuit, on behalf of retarded children, against the state of Pennsylvania. The association was persuaded by Dr. Gunnar Dybwad, a very active advocate for the right of the disabled, to go ahead with the litigation in United States District Court. PARC versus Pennsylvania resulted in the establishment of rights for disabled children to access free and equal public education.


The concept of deinstitutionalization was popular during this decade. A focus on the eventual return to the community of individuals with disabilities was what guided this movement. Deinstitutionalization endorsed the closing of state institutions and promoted the establishment of community living.



Center for Independent Living established at the U of C Berkeley.

Disabled in Action, National Paraplegia Foundation and other advocacy groups protest the veto of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by Richard Nixon. Demonstrations are held in Washington, D.C.

Geraldo Rivera does an expose on the Willowbrook State School that leads to an immediate federal inquiry. The deplorable conditions of the facility for the mentally retarded were televised and Willowbrook became national news.


In 1973 the first self-advocacy conference was held in Victoria Island, British Columbia Canada. The conference was titled "First Convention for the Mentally Handicapped in North America." Three residents and two staff members from Oregon's Fairview Hospital attended the convention and founded People First the next year.

The passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act is a large victory for the disability rights movement. The discrimination of the handicapped is addressed for the first time especially in Section 504. Qualified persons seeking employment could not be discriminated against based on their disability. This law would provide the outline for the future Americans with Disabilities Act.


People First, the nation's largest and first self-advocacy organization, was founded in 1974 by the 5 who attended the Canadian conference. The first convention is held that same year in Salem, Oregon.


American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities is established. This organization represents all disabilities for disability rights. Frank Bowe was the first executive director.

Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act passed.

The Willowbrook Consent Decree is signed by New York Governor Hugh Carey, which commits New York State to improving community placement for members of the Willowbrook class action lawsuit, and later all persons served by the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

"The Education for All Handicapped Children Act," public law 94-142, was passed in 1975. This act allocated federal dollars to states and localities in order to provide education for children with disabilities. Included in the act were provisions for a free and appropriate education, individualized education programs with parental involvement, establishment of due process proceedings, and to provide an education in the least restrictive environment.


Transbus group sues the city of Philadelphia to make public buses wheelchair accessible. The group is made up several advocacy organizations.

Disabled in Action protests the United Cerebral Palsy telethon in New York City.

An amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1972 requiring the provision of services for physically disabled college students is passed.


Disability rights advocates protest in 10 cities for regulations implementing section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973.

White House Conference on Handicapped People includes participation of people with disabilities.



Sit-ins held in Denver over the inaccessibility of the public transit system.

Federal government begins funding independent living centers.

Frank Bowe publishes Handicapping America considered the text for the disability rights movement.


Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund established in Berkeley, California and becomes the leader in disability right legal advocacy.


Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act passed. Allows US Department of Justice to file suits on behalf of residents of institutions.

First Issue of Disability Rag published.



1981 was the International Year of Disabled Persons with ceremonies before the United Nations General Assembly. Governments world-wide were asked to promote the acceptance of the disabled into mainstream society. The theme was "full participation and equality" with an emphasis on the rights of the disabled in the larger society. The International Year of Disabled Persons would later be established as the National Decade of Disabled Persons for the years 1983 to 1992 by President Ronald Reagan.


National Black Deaf Advocates founded.

National Council on Independent Living is formed.


ADAPT is established and uses civil disobedience to obtain accessible public transportation and access to public and private buildings.


Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act making polling places accessible. Considered difficult to enforce.


New York State holds the first conference for self-advocates with developmental disabilities.


Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act passed. The Act provides protections from abuse and neglect for people with mental illness and as well as advocates for those patients rights.

Air Carrier Access Act passed. The act forbids the discrimination of people with disabilities regarding air travel and provides provisions on access and accommodations.

Bernard Carabello founded the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.



Students at Gallaudet University protest for the selection of a deaf University president. Irving King Jordan is eventually appointed as the first deaf president of the university.

Civil Rights Restoration Act

"It also specifies that an institution which receives federal financial assistance is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or age in a program or activity which does not directly benefit from such assistance."


Original ADA legislation introduced into Congress and advocacy groups advocate for its passage nationwide.

Mouth: The Voice of Disability Rights begins publication. Rochester, NY.



ADAPT organizes a support demonstration for the passage of the ADA. They occupy the capital rotunda and many are arrested.

President George Bush signs the ADA on July 26. The American with Disabilities Act was a wide-sweeping civil rights legislation giving protections to individuals with disabilities. Equal opportunity was established for employment, transportation, telecommunications, public accommodations and the state and federal government's services.


Jerry's Orphans 1st annual protest of Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.

Self Advocates Becoming Empowered was founded in 1991 during the Second North American People First Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.


International Day of Disabled Persons established by UN to create awareness and understanding.


American Association of People with Disabilities is founded in Washington, D.C. "The largest national nonprofit cross-disability member organization in the United States, dedicated to ensuring economic self-sufficiency and political empowerment for the more than 56 million Americans with disabilities."


Supreme Court rules on Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W. stating that the ADA requires public agencies to provide services in the most integrated setting.


Fleischer, Doris Zames and Frieda Zames. The Disability Rights Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University, 2003.

Malhotra, Ravi. "The Politics of the Disability Rights Movements." New Politics, vol. 8, no.3, Summer 2001.

National Association of the Deaf. "Historical Timeline of the National Association of the Deaf."

Pelka, Fred. The ABC-CLIO Companion to The Disability Rights Movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

San Francisco State University Institute on Disability, Disability History Dateline.

Western New York Independent Living Project. "New York State Independent Living History Timeline."

How to do it in your state.

With the growing need for a Disability History Week across the country; we have compiled the tools to help you develop the legislation in your state. If you have any other questions please let us know.


National Disability History Week initiative 8-5-09

Disability advocates across the country are mobilizing to help create understanding and celebrate the history of individuals with disabilities! Since West Virginia passed the first Disability

- read more

Riverside Elementary Class promoting NYS DHW 5-14-09

A third grade class at Riverside Elementary School has been collaborating with the Catskill Center for Independence in finding ways to promote disability awareness in their school. This year, the

- read more

NYS Disability History Curriculum is now available! 11-19-08

The Museum of disABILITY History is pleased to announce that lesson plans as well as supplemental information are now available! These can be found through the Teacher Resources section of the

- read more

Legislative Updates

New York State

Updated: 5-10-12


Updated: 9-2-11


Updated: 8-25-11

View All Legislations