Disability Militancy – the 1930s

Disabled protesters in the 1930s.

Sit-in at the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s (origin unknown).


The 1930’s were a time of great social unrest and increasing militancy among what one historian has termed “the impatient armies of the poor” (Folsom, 1991). On March 6, 1930 hundreds of thousands of the unemployed marched through the streets America’s largest cities. The Unemployment Councils, a largely decentralized movement, came into existence in the summer of 1930. In the summer of 1932, 20,000 unemployed veterans marched on Washington, many with wives and children. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they camped in vacant government buildings and in open fields. They came to claim their Congressionally mandated bonus. The veterans conducted themselves in a peaceful and orderly way. When they refused to leave tanks, tear gas and bayonets were used against them. One hundred were killed. In March 1933 out of a total US population of 132 million, 45 million people were living in abject poverty.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded in 1935 and organized thousands of workers. Although there were a number of labor leaders with disabilities and thousands of disabled workers there was no disability rights movement as we know it today. Nonetheless, times of social injustice often breed resistance, and resistance, once loosed, has a way of spreading. And spread it did, to people with disabilities. We have, unfortunately, few well documented examples from this period of people with disabilities coming together to struggle for their basic human rights. The examples we have are powerful and deserve to be presented here, even if in certain cases the facts are few or while well researched, awaiting publication.

The “Workshops” and Strikes

I make a point of avoiding the term “sheltered” workshops as I believe it demeans and belittles not only the work done in these settings but also because it devalues the workers. Many of those employed in these settings are paid less than minimum wage. One of America’s first workshops for the blind was established in 1840 in Massachusetts by Samuel Gridley Howe (Koestler, 1976). Howe founded the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind eight years earlier. His new brainchild was a “separate work department” at the school. By the 1980s the number of people with disabilities working in these settings numbered more than 650,000 (Pelka, 1997). Organizations of the blind had attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain collective bargaining rights in the workshops for a number of years. Although the employees of the workshops were denied the right to unionize, strikes did occur. A sit-down strike by blind employees occurred in a Pittsburgh workshop in 1937. The local press seemed more impressed with the “oddity” of the event than with the fact that a group of disabled workers were angry enough to organize a militant rank and file job action in their place of employment.

The League of the Physically Handicapped

The League of the Physically Handicapped was formed in New York City in May 1935. This almost forgotten disability rights group was rediscovered and researched by historian Paul Longmore. Initially a group of six people with disabilities, this seminal precursor of the disability rights movement grew to a membership of several hundred. The league’s first action was a sit-in of the office of the Emergency Relief Bureau in New York City. The six had requested a meeting with the director of the ERB to protest the Bureau’s unwillingness to refer people with disabilities to the Works Progress Administration for employment. The director refused to meet with the league and the six then started their sit-in. The action attracted popular support and press attention.

"Death Watch" flyer

Top part of a flyer put out by the League for the Physically Handicapped announcing a protest (see text of flyer)

Later actions included picket lines and demonstrations and league members spoke to labor unions and progressive organizations in an attempt to educate these groups on disability issues. Like many groups struggling for economic and social justice the League of the Physically Handicapped was accused of being “reds”. The group dissolved in the late 1930s. More information on the league can be found in Pelka’s, The ABC-CLIO Companion to the Disability Rights Movement, 1997, pp. 190-191.

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