Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Introduction to Civil Rights for the Disabled

The fight for rights for disabled people slowly took shape in the United States, beginning in the early 1800s.  Well-known persons such as Louis Braille and later, Helen Keller, made significant individual progress, and helped to focus attention on the issue of rights for disabled Americans.  Gradually, local and statewide organizations were formed, where mostly family and friends took up the charge. The first national organization for disabled rights was founded in 1880--The National Association of the Deaf.  Early 20th-century legislation and litigation regarding disabled persons involved awards to governmental or other organizational bodies to encourage or reward programs for the handicapped.  For example, during the 1930s, The Social Security Act provided funds to states for assistance to blind individuals and disabled children.  In the '40s, President Truman signed the National Mental Health Act, which called for the establishment of a National Institute of Mental Health, and The American Federation of the Physically Handicapped became the first cross-disability national rights for the disabled organization.  In the 50s, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education picked up the momentum of the disability rights movement.  And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the movement a goal.

Library Resources:

  • Doris Zames Fleischer, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation, HV1553 .F58 2011
  • Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States, HV1553 .N54 2012
  • Chris Mounsey, ed., The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century, PN56.5.H35 I34 2014


Louis Braille

Helen Keller