The Hidden Army of Disability Rights Movement

There’s strength in numbers.  When more people fight for the same cause, change happens.  We saw this with the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, but we also saw it–and are still seeing it–with the disability rights movement.  Unlike how other movements have one or two people to point at as being the leader, the disability rights movement doesn’t have that one person.  Disability is so wide and varied, so intersectional, that not one person is able to speak for everyone.  Additionally, before Section 504 and the ADA, it was difficult for disabled people to get out en masse because the world was inaccessible.  So how did this movement, with little organization, get to the ADA?  

Coelho and The Hidden Army

Though marching in the streets isn’t necessarily an option, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to get changes made.  California representative Tony Coelho once called disability rights activists “a hidden army” due to the number of people affected by disability.  One in seven people have some form of disability.  Not all disabilities are noticeable, so there were (and are) hidden disabled people everywhere.  Disability activists also aren’t just disabled people.  There’s parents, siblings, friends and co-workers all wanting to make the world more accessible.  

Coelho himself was part of the army, after a truck accident on his family’s dairy farm at the age of 16 left him with sporadic blackouts and body spasms.  He originally wanted to be a Catholic priest, but at the time seizures were signs of demonic possession, which barred him from ministry.  Coelho had to disclose his condition on every job application, and the state of California took away his drivers license.  He realized, after winning the election to congress in 1978, that his disability wasn’t the problem.  The problem is people’s ignorant perceptions of his disability.


Coelho was the original house sponsor for the bill that would later become the ADA.  The first version had been championed by Republican Lowell Weicker, who’s son had Down’s syndrome.  When Weicker stepped down, Coelho asked his friend and Maryland house representative Steny Hoyer to take over.  What many didn’t know was that Hoyer’s wife had epilepsy.  During a senate meeting, senator Tom Harkin gave part of his speech in American Sign Language (ASL) in solidarity with the Deaf/hard of hearing community.  Edward Kennedy spoke of his son, who lost a leg to cancer.  Other senators spoke about their experience with disability, beit first hand or via a family member.  Ralph Neas, a civil rights leader, was crucial in getting other equal rights causes to add disability issues to their agenda too.

One of the more surprising members of the hidden army is President Bush.  Bush was integral because he held a position of power.  He lost a daughter to leukemia when she was only three years old.  His son Neil had a severe learning disability, which prompted the first lady’s literacy initiative.  His youngest son had a section of his colon removed and had a colostomy bag.  

Bush’s Role

Despite all this, Bush still seemed out of place to most people.  As vice president in 1982, he attempted to cut Section 504 and the Rehabilitation Act.  After sitting face to face with Evan Kemp Jr., an attorney and director of the Ralph Nader-funded Disability Rights Center, Bush opened his eyes.  Kemp used the conservative argument, that disabled people wanted to get off of welfare and live independently. 

The struggles of the disability rights movement to get the ADA off the ground is rarely discussed.  We hear about Dr. King’s speeches, about the Stonewall riots, but we rarely–if ever–hear about disability activists.  Because it can be hard for disability activists to get out and gather in big groups due to inaccessibility, activists need to get creative.  Disability activists often fight from the inside, and are a hidden army.

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