"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"
by Steven Brown
Disability history is a recent notion for many. As a group, we have not been considered important enough to explore. This column is one attempt to correct that oversight, and publicize our shared past.
ADAPT’s action in Columbus in late 1999 is detailed elsewhere in this issue. Did you know that ADAPT is not the first disability organization to engage in these kinds of tactics? An earlier group was the New York League of the Physically Handicapped.
Historian Paul Longmore rediscovered the League in the late 1980s. Longmore, like most League members, had the Polio virus. Others had Cerebral Palsy, Tuberculosis or heart conditions. League members assembled when they discovered that New Deal policies, designed to combat the Great Depression, classified them as "unemployable." Adding insult to injury, these programs were inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a wheelchair user himself.
Six League members entered a New York City agency in May, 1935 to discuss these discriminatory policies. The individual they wanted to see was out of town. Some League members refused to leave. Three League members remained in the building for nine days. Picketers with and without disabilities supported them outside the building. After three weeks, the group decided to organize formally.
Six months later, they conducted a three week picket at the New York headquarters of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a primary New Deal employment agency. They demanded a just share of the millions of jobs being given out by the government. The WPA hired about forty League members. Skeptical League members believed this action was taken to squash the group. It gained momentum instead.
A year later, League members traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with WPA leader Harry Hopkins. When informed that he was away, they voted to stay until he met with them. Three days later he did. Hopkins didn’t believe the League’s contention about the number of employable New Yorkers with disabilities. He requested an analysis that would disprove his belief, and then he promised he would take immediate action to correct these conditions.
The League presented Hopkins with its "Thesis on Conditions of Physically Handicapped," a ten-page document describing job discrimination in private and public sectors and recommending preferential civil service hiring of disabled veterans and handicapped civilians.
Hopkins ignored the thesis. The League, understandably dissatisfied with its Washington experiences, concentrated its energies in New York with varying degrees of success.
The League did get a number of people jobs. It did not achieve its goal of altering federal employment policies towards people with disabilities.
The League’s most lasting legacy may be its identification of social problems plaguing people with disabilities that remain with us still.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE LEAGUE: Longmore, P. K., and David Goldberger, "Political Movements of People with Disabilities: The League of the Physically Handicapped, 1945-38," DISABILITY STUDIES QUARTERLY, 17 (2), (Spring 1997), 94-98. SOCIETY FOR DISABILITY STUDIES: http://www.uic.edu/orgs/sds/
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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corportation