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How Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Helped Shape the Disability Rights Movement

While most people know of the work which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did during the Civil Rights Movement, his work towards equalization extended far beyond that for African Americans. He was also a major component of helping pave the way towards a more accessible country. When changes were beginning to be being made for an increasing number of minorities across the country, advocates for those with disabilities joined in on the fight. Their efforts are responsible for many of the basic adaptations we see today, from marked parking spaces to equal access building codes.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed that illegalized discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However those with disabilities were not included in these specifications, and their fight for legal inclusion continued through the next three decades. They continued to fight against the same injustices which Dr. King faced, and his courage and perseverance inspired the persistence and determination of advocates across the country. They had a monumental task, one to not only change the negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with disabilities, but to actively organize demonstrations and protests to ensure their needs were not overlooked.

From these efforts came radical changes throughout the 20th century. In the beginning decades, those with disabilities were often marginalized and forcibly put into asylums or institutions. It was assumed that they were a burden, unable to contribute to society. This segregation became normal, and the stereotyping and marginalization continued to escalate. The first influx of demand for equality came from the veterans who were injured during World War I and later during World War II. The country began to take notice of their situations, but no real changes were made to the law until the 1960s. During the 60s and 70s, social security was extended to those under 50, mass transit systems were required to include a wheelchair lift, buildings were mandatorily made accessible, children with disabilities could no longer be excluded from public schools, and schools and universities began to receive funding for the establishment of programs to help those who needed special accommodations.

Although major advancements were made during this time, and during more recent decades, there are still many more opportunities to establish equality for those with disabilities. And we’re looking forward to seeing what those changes will be in the future because, as Dr. King once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

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