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  • Divya Vydhianathan

Navigating the Complexities of Disabilities Rights, On and Off Campus

Navigating life in any marginalized space is like making a square peg fit in a round hole. Members of the disabled community, those who have any physical or mental impairment that makes it more difficult to complete certain tasks and participate in certain activities, feel this on a variety of levels. Society was not designed with their needs in mind and is only just recently catching on accommodating them. Approximately one in five Americans identify as being disabled in some way. They often find it difficult to get accommodations at school or work, especially those with non-visible disabilities and those who have good coping mechanisms to get through daily tasks. I cannot provide firsthand information on the experiences of this lifestyle, but I will provide information and resources in this article based on a unit I had in a policy communications class about this topic.

History of Advocacy

The first disability rights activists in the US started advocating in the 1800s. In the 1930s we saw the League of the Physically Handicapped form, leading to more activist groups forming in later decades. The Rehabilitation Act passed in 1973 federally recognized how society had previously excluded and segregated people with disabilities from being participating members of society for the first time in American history. The Education of All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975, guaranteeing the right to a public school education to all handicapped children.

It was not easy to get certain changes done though. It took four years, a nationwide call for policy change, and a sit-in lasting almost a month to implement change that codified the law. Activist Judy Heumann, one of the pivotal faces of the movement, wanted Section 504 passed to make sure no federal programs discriminated against disabled individuals. The Nixon Administration refused to add this amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, and the sit-in with her and several other disability rights activists was during President Carter’s administration. After putting pressure on Carter’s Secretary of Health, Administration, and Welfare Joseph Califano from the sit-in, the administration listened. A pivotal part of the Rehabilitation Act was signing section 504 into the Rehabilitation Act in 1977. This act prohibits disability-based discrimination in any federal or federally funded program.

After years of threats against defunding the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act and continued protests from disability rights activists, the first version of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced to Congress in 1988.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities based on employment, state and local government activities, public transportation, public accommodations, telecommunications, and other provisions. It also defines what a disability is, what counts as a “history” of a disability, and how it can significantly impact one’s daily life before going into the specific protections for people with disabilities.

Because of the ADA and the Disabilities Rights Movement in general, employers are aware that they cannot violate the civil rights of individuals with disabilities, most public buses have lifts for wheelchairs, and disabled children attend public school like other children. We have the activists of the late 20th century to thank for much of the modern accommodations we take for granted today, but we still have ways to go in this battle for equality.

Accessibility on College Campuses

According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, the University of Virginia, and Cornell University had the best rankings in 2021 for overall campus accessibility based on the accessibility of the overall campus environment, public image, accommodation request systems, and grievance policies.

The UMD website does not have a campus accessibility ranking, and neither does the university’s accessibility site. However, the site does have a lot of information regarding accommodations, improving accessibility, resources on campus, disability policies on campus, and information on who to contact about improving campus accessibility. However, these resources are often overwhelmed by the volume of students and the variety of experiences that they may not be able to solve the issues of every student on campus.

How to be more accommodating to people with disabilities

  • Recognize that there is no one “look” of a disabled person. Disabilities are physical, mental, emotional, psychological, etc.

  • Another great practice is to educate oneself on the proper terms to address others respectfully. If someone corrects you about how a term is stigmatizing against the disabled community, listen to them and learn from their lived experiences. You do not need to see someone’s disability to force you to be considerate to the disabled community.

  • Finally, consume media on topics you don’t know much about. You reading this article is just the first step. If someone you know or care about has a disability, educate yourself to know how to support them best. It is not anyone’s job to educate us on being kind and empathetic.


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