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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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Frame Modification

The frame of civil rights could not be applied to people with impairments without some modifications. For example, the right to vote is worthless if the voting booth is inaccessible, so accessibility of voting booths has to be included as a civil right under a modified civil rights frame. Previous civil rights legislation reshuffled seating patterns but kept the same equipment, so to speak, in order that blacks should not have to sit only at the back of the bus. But people with some types of impairments needed new or modified equipment on buses so that they could ride them at all (Berkowitz, 1992). The frame modification that was needed for people with impairments also had to involve the recognition that issues are of differential importance. For example, while accessibility was one of several important civil rights issues for members of racial or ethnic minority groups, it is the civil rights issues for people with impairments. Issues would have to change their salience hierarchy within the frame of civil rights in order for its extension to people with impairments to be able to succeed in satisfying their grievances.

Finally, the modification of the frame of civil rights had to involve the recognition that, although civil rights for blacks or women can usually be achieved for free, civil rights for persons with disabilities might cost something. The modified frame had to accept the premise that it was appropriate for society to bear at least some cost. Because a large amount of the opposition to extending the frame to civil rights to people with disabilities was based upon its presumed cost to businesses and to society, the frame of civil rights was modified to include the acceptance of costs that did not pose an “undue burden” upon a business. The modified frame said that employers had to make “reasonable accommodation” unless to do so would cause “undue hardship.” These notions were not included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act or in other laws that codified the notion of civil rights when applied to blacks or women.


People with impairments demanded that American society accept a new model of disability. This new model would view persons with impairments as a minority group,4 would indicate that discrimination was one of the most important sources of problems, and would accept the idea that problems could be fixed if civil rights were given to people with impairments.

Demands for acceptance of this new model of disability began in the 1970s (see Kleinfield, 1977) but were more frequent in the 1980s (see Meyerson, 1988; Stroman, 1982). Academics (e.g., Deegan, 1981; Barnartt, 1986; Barnartt and Christiansen, 1985; Christiansen and Barnartt, 1987) as well as advocates (Gleidman and Roth, 1980; Hahn, 1985a, 1985b) emphasized that lower incomes, economic discrimination, and political powerlessness characterized people with impairments as they did members of other minority groups.

The notion that people with impairments were a minority group was not accepted instantly. Some academics (e.g., Lerner, 1985; Meyerson, 1988) and journalists (Davis, 1988) disputed the notion that the concept applied to this group. The societal reframing of people with impairments as a minority group lacking in civil rights was a basic tenet of the collective consciousness that drove some of the contentious actions.

Specific Civil Rights Demands

There are two aspects of this frame that are central to demands by people with impairments for civil rights: (1) accessibility, which would permit the full integration of people with impairments, and (2) equal opportunity. In these demands the relative importance of the two issues is a little different than it is for blacks or women. While equal opportunity is important, it often cannot be achieved without achieving the prior demand—accessibility. That is, if one cannot even get into the building in which the job interview is being held, one cannot have an equal opportunity to be hired for the job. Thus, civil rights for people with impairments have to include accessibility as a basic demand. There are several types of accessibility.