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
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
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
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
The League’s most lasting legacy may be its identification of social
problems plaguing people with disabilities that remain with us still.