Moments in Disability History

Period – BC

3500 BC
The Rig-Veda, an ancient sacred poem of India, is said to be the first written record of a prosthesis. Written in Sanskrit between 3500 and 1800 B.C., it recounts the story of a warrior, Queen Vishpla, who lost her leg in battle, was fitted with an iron prosthesis, and returned to battle.

355 BC
Aristotle said those “born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason.”

218 BC
Marcus Sergius, a Roman general who led his legion against Carthage (presently Tunis) in the Second Punic War, sustained 23 injuries and a right arm amputation. An iron hand was fashioned to hold his shield and he was able to go back to battle. He was denied a chance to be a priest because one needed two normal hands.

Years 0 – 1700 AD

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) was the first physician to recognize the ability of the deaf to reason.

Gotz von Berlichingen, German mercenary knight, had a reputation as a Robin Hood, protecting the peasants from their oppressors. In 1508 he lost his right arm in the Battle of Landshut. Gotz had two prosthetic iron hands made for himself. These were mechanical masterpieces. Each joint could be moved independently by setting with the sound hand and relaxed by a release and springs. The hand could pronate and supinate and was suspended with leather straps.

Lasso, a Spanish lawyer, concluded that those who learn to speak are no longer dumb and should have rights to progeniture.

G. Bonifacio published a treatise discussing sign language, “Of The Art of Signs.”

Pieter Andriannszoon Verduyn (verduuin), a Dutch Surgeon, introduces the first non-locking, below knee prosthesis. It bears a striking similarity to today’s joint and corset prosthesis.

Years 1700 – 1800 AD

Samuel Heinicke establishes first oral school for the deaf in the world in Germany.

Charles Michel Abbe del’ Epee establishes first free school for the deaf in the world, Paris, France.

Thomas Braidwood opened first school for the deaf in England.

Arnoldi, a German pastor, believed education of the deaf should begin as early as four years.

Abba Silvestri opened first school for the deaf in Italy in Rome.

In Paris, Pinel unshackles people with mental illnesses.

Years 1800 – 1900 AD

Rush’s Medical Inquiries and Observations is the first modern attempt to explain mental disorders.

Louis Braille is born (04-Jan-1809) at Coupvray, near Paris. At three years of age an accident deprived him of his sight, and in 1819 he was sent to the Paris Blind School – which was originated by Valentin Hauy.

Thomas H. Gallaudet departed the America for Europe to seek methods to teach the deaf.

Laurent Clerc, a Deaf French man, returns to America with Thomas H. Gallaudet.

Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the first permanent school for the deaf in America, opened in Hartford on April 15.

American School for the Deaf adds vocational training to curriculum.

Louis Braille invents the raised point alphabet that has come to be known as Braille.

Alice Cogswell dies.

American Annals of the Deaf began publication at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet died on September 10.

Galladuet Monument was dedicated in Hartford.

Laurent Clerc retired from teaching at age 73.

The Braille system was introduced to America and was taught with some success at the St. Louis School for the Blind.

The American Civil War (1861 – 1865)- 30,000 amputations in the Union Army alone.

08-apr-1864: Congress authorized the board of directors of the Columbus Institution to grant college degrees; President Lincoln signed charter on April 8.

Alexander G. Bell opened speech school for teachers of the deaf in Boston.

Alexander Bell got patent for his telephone invention; exhibited it at Philadelphia Exposition that summer.

Women admitted to the National Deaf-Mute College (now Gallaudet).

National Association of the Deaf unveiled memorial to Thomas H. Gallaudet at National Deaf-Mute College (now Galladuet University).

National Deaf-Mute College became Gallaudet College.

Years 1900 AD – present

British Braille became the English language standard (although New York Point and American Braille were both being used in the U.S.) because of the wealth of code already available in the British empire.

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a non-profit organization recognized as Helen Keller’s cause in the United States, is founded.

A group in New York City called the League for the Physically Handicapped formed to protest discrimination by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The league’s 300 people — most disabled by polio and cerebral palsy — all had been turned down for WPA jobs. The Home Relief Bureau of New York City was supposed to forward their job requests to the WPA, but was stamping all their applications ‘PH’ for physically handicapped, as a signal to the WPA not to give these people jobs. Members of the league sat in at the Home Relief Bureau for nine days; and went to the WPA headquarters and held a weekend sit-in there. They eventually generated a couple thousand jobs nationwide.

In the United States, Dr. Alexis Carrel, a nobel prize winner who had been on the staff of the Rockefeller Institute since its inception, publishes his book “Man the Unknown.” In it he suggests the removal of the mentally ill and the criminal by small euthanasia institutions equipped with suitable gases.

Amid the outbreak of World War II Hitler orders widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled. The Nazi euthanasia program was code-named Aktion T4 and was instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life.”

(1940-1944) In Nazi Germany 908 patients are transferred from Schoenbrunn, an institution for retarded and chronically ill patients, to the euthanasia “installation” at Eglfing-Haar to be gassed. A monument to the victims now stands in the courtyard at Schoenbrunn.

(03-Aug-1941) In Nazi Germany a Catholic bishop, Clemens von Galen, delivers a sermon in Munster Cathedral attacking the Nazi euthanasia program calling it “plain murder.”

(23-Aug-1941) Hitler suspends Aktion T4, which had accounted for nearly a hundred thousand deaths by this time. However the euthanasia program quietly continued using drugs and starvation instead of gassings.

Ed Roberts, “father of the independent living movement,” contracts polio.

Ed Roberts and his peers at Cowell (UC Berkeley Health Center) formed a group called the Rolling Quads.

The Rolling Quads form the Disabled Students’ Program on the U.C. Berkeley campus.

Ed Roberts and his associates establish a Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley, CA for the community at large. The center was originally in a roach-infested two-bedroom apartment until the Rehabilitation Administration gave them a $50,000 grant in 1972.

Disabled Women’s Coalition founded at UC Berkeley by Susan Sygall and Deborah Kaplan. Other women involved include Kitty Cone, Corbett O’Toole, and Susan Schapiro. The coalition ran support groups, held disabled women’s retreats, wrote for feminist publications, and lectured on women and disability.

National Association of the Deaf did census of Deaf Americans; counted 13.4 million hearing and 1.8 million deaf Americans.

In his election campaign, candidate Jimmy Carter promised that his administration would sign regulations that had received extensive input from affected agencies and the disability community nationwide, and which had taken years to finalize.

Federal Communications Commission authorized reserving Line 21 on television sets for closed captions.

(01-Jan-1977) When Carter’s administration took office, the Health, Education, and Welfare Department immediately began revising and watering down the regulations, with no input from the disability community.

(05-Apr-1977) A group of disabled people takes over the San Francisco offices of the Health, Education, and Welfare Department to protest Secretary Joseph Califano’s refusal to sign meaningful regulations for Section 504. No one expected to live there for almost a month, but they did. The action became the longest sit-in of a federal building to date. The historic demonstrations were successful and the 504 regulations were finally signed.

(04-May-1977) The Section 504 regulations were issued.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. began selling decoders for closed captioning for television.

National Disabled Women’s Educational Equity Project based at DREDF is established and run by Corbett O’Toole. They did the first national survey on disability and gender, wrote No More Stares, and conducted regional training programs for younger disabled women in Pocatello, Eugene and Minneapolis.

National Disabled Women’s Educational Equity Project puts on the first national Conference on Disabled Women’s Educational Equity in Bethesda, MD.

Harilyn Rousso sets up the Networking Project on Disabled Women and Girls at the YWCA in New York City. She produces a book and film titled, “Loud, Proud and Female.”

(October) National ADAPT action for accessible transportation in Denver, CO at the American Public Transit Association (APTA) Convention.

“Deaf President Now” protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. First deaf president at Gallaudet: Dr. I. King Jordan

(July – Sept) Greyhound across the nation – ADAPT takes on the inaccessible Greyhound buses.

(September) Opening of a memorial museum for the victims of “euthanasia” and “Special Treatment 14 f 13” at a psychiatric hospital in Bernburg, Germany.

(March) ADAPT action – Washington DC, Wheels of Justice

March 12 – The “Capitol Crawl” protest for disability rights might have been the single most important catalyst for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 25 years ago. More than 1,000 protesters came to Washington that day to urge Congress to approve the measure, which had been stalled for several months. Calling for immediate action, they chanted “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

(26-July-1990) ADA signing ceremony at the White House.

The Secretary of Transportation, Sam Skinner, finally issues regulations mandating lifts on buses.

(15-Feb-1993) Wade Blank, one of the founders of ADAPT, dies trying to save his son from drowning.

Sewering, an SS-member and lung specialist in Germany who had sent a 14-year old girl with TB to Elfing-Haar to be gassed, becomes president-elect of the World Physicians Association. A storm of protest forces him to resign.

The struggle for the rights of people with disabilities in Southern Africa took a giant leap forward with the election and appointment to parliament, for the first time in the history of the region, of two women disability leaders in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The election of Maria Rantho early in 1995 to the government of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and of Ronah Moyo in April to the Robert Mugabe government of Zimbabwe marked the beginning of an epoch in the history of people with disabilities. Both the new parliamentarians admit they are faced with an uphill struggle with legislators who are mostly ignorant of the needs of people with disabilities. As for South African Federation of Disabled People, this was a landmark victory. Rantho is SAFOD’s vice-chairperson and Moyo heads the women’s wing of the Zimbabwe Federation of Disabled People. Both women have proven to be tough fighters for human rights, having tested their mettle in the forefront of the struggle. Ms. Rantho was sworn into Parliament in February as part of ANC national list of candidates. She said her first responsibility was to “ensure that human rights issues are debated and upheld.” Speaking for nearly six million people with disabilities, who form 12 per cent of South Africa’s entire population, she added, “All along there has not been much said or done to protect the rights of people with disabilities, and we needed to be represented by our own people.”

(31-Aug-1995) The First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities is held in Beijing, China in conjunction with the Fourth World Conference on Women.

(26-Dec-1995) The organization of people with disabilities in Cuba (ACLIFM) hold their first international conference on disability rights in Havana, Cuba.


Thanks to Deaf World Web for contributing important dates in Deaf history.

Other Timelines:

Disability Rights Timeline from Temple University

History of Sonoma State Developmental Center in Eldridge, CA from the CA Department of Developmental Services

International Independent Living History