York College Associate Professor of History Tim McNeese’s new book, Disability Rights Movement, has been published by ABDO Publishing Company. Released this month, the book focuses on the history of the disability rights movement in America and the long fight for recognition, better treatment, and, ultimately, equal rights. The book represents one volume in ABDO’s “Essential Library of Social Change” series.
This book represents the latest published work by McNeese, who has written more than 100 books over the past 25 years for a wide variety of audiences including younger readers. This book is meant to target middle grade and high school readers. McNeese has written on additional important movements in American history, including civil rights, labor, and Progressivism.
McNeese was approached last November by Red Line Editorial, a book development company working with ABDO, to write a book that explores the topic of the disability rights movement from early America to more recent years when the movement hit its stride with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
“The world of those considered by society to be ‘disabled’ in America has been a difficult one for most Americans to understand,” says McNeese. “And the history of how people with disabilities have been treated throughout American history has been alternately disappointing and yet, in the end, inspiring.”
McNeese’s book covers the disability movement chronologically, beginning with colonial history, which featured few institutions and even local laws that banned disabled outsiders from taking residence.
“By comparison, the 19th Century saw great strides on behalf of people with disabilities,” notes McNeese. “We see our first vocal advocacy groups and the first real institutions designed to help people with specific disabilities, including schools for the deaf and blind, as well as mental hospitals.”
Still, the public’s perception of people with disabilities was fairly hard-edged, McNeeses adds. Following the Civil war, so many veterans emerged with physical deformities that some American cities passed “ugly laws,” that banned “any crippled, maimed, or deformed person” from city streets. Yet, many veterans benefited from a newly developing, post-Civil War prosthetics industry, including the first wheelchairs in 1869.
The latter decades of the 19th Century saw the advancement of an institutional movement in support of the mentally ill called the Kirkbride Plan.
Kirkbride brought about the building of large, looming asylums, usually two-story, two-winged facilities, often situated in rural settings where patients could enjoy therapeutic fresh air and sunshine, says McNeese. Many of the treatments, though, in such facilities would be considered draconian today.
“Most Kirkbride facilities have been abandoned today,” notes McNeese. “They serve as the dark, imposing places that are sometimes featured in horror and psychological thriller movies. Some have sort of found a second life, utilized during Halloween as ‘houses of horror’.”
The great strides in support of people with disabilities had to wait until the 20th Century, says McNeese.
“Once again, war played a role,” says McNeese. Veterans of World Wars I and II received government support through veterans’ rehabilitation legislation. It would be only a few years before such legislation was passed on behalf of civilians with disabilities.
McNeese credits President Franklin Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio, for publicizing the plight of the people with disabilities in America.
“He was instrumental in creating the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,” McNeese notes, “which transmogrified later into the March of Dimes. It’s one reason why FDR’s face is on the dime today.”
More recent decades saw the advancement of support for people with disabilities, as well as a new voice, as those individuals banded together and formed rights organizations, sometimes taking their cues from the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s.
“Once individuals with disabilities began lending their voices to more support groups and activist groups, then the cry became one emphasizing human rights, equality, and opposition to discrimination,” says McNeese.
Just as the University of California—Berkeley became a hotbed of political rights issues during the 1960s, some individuals with disabilities on campus were calling for their rights as students, insisting that campus housing be accommodated for their wheelchairs and other mobility issues. This led to the opening of a dorm floor called the “Rolling Quads.” The result, says McNeese, was the independent living movement, which is so commonplace in America today.
Because of the independent living movement, the percentage of people with disabilities who were institutionalized dropped by 60 percent between 1965 and 1980.
“Much of this was leading inevitably to the ADA,” states McNeese. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal legal protections have been in place that affect everything from making public transportation and public buildings handicap accessible to the blue signs that mark parking spaces.
“ADA was not a piece of legislation that just happened overnight,” says McNeese. “It was decades in the making, dating back to laws passed following World War II.” Several government buildings in Washington, D.C., for example, were retooled for handicap accessibility even during the 1940s.
McNeese notes a key step toward ADA came about with the passage in 1968 of the Architectural Barriers Act, which required that any new buildings and those remodeled with federal dollars would have to be physically accessible to people with disabilities.
“ADA meant for the people with disabilities in America what the civil rights legislation in the 1960s meant for blacks,” says McNeese.
Even with the passage of ADA, new laws are still being passed as the public perception of people with disabilities continues to shift to one of understanding and support.
“This book was great for me,” says McNeese, “because it heightened my own knowledge and awareness of the issues facing people with disabilities.”
McNeese’s book is available in print and as an e-book. The book is available on Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or the ABDO Publishing website.
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