80 Years of Fighting for Disability Rights

Disability Rights Movement: The untold story of the League of the Physically Handicapped. Read more!

According to A People’s History of the Independent Living Movement, the rise of the movement in Berkeley, California and the formation of Disabled in Action (DIA) in NYC, in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, were the beginnings of the US disability rights movement. Yet it is possible to look even further back in US history to the Depression Era of the 1930s, to see the emergence of a movement for disability rights, organized by people with disabilities themselves. Eighty years ago this week, a small group staged a sit-in at the Works Progress Administration in New York City. Unbeknownst to them, a powerful movement was born that day.

The Great Depression that began in 1929 brought nationwide chaos and struggle for millions of Americans. With strikes, occupations, sit-downs, pickets, and demonstrations for jobs common, the official unemployment rate rose to 25 percent. For workers with disabilities the economic crisis hit even harder, with an unemployment rate of just over 80 percent.

As a response to widespread joblessness, poverty and unrest, the Roosevelt Administration implemented the New Deal Program in 1933. At its core was a plan to create millions of federal jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), beginning in January of 1935. The WPA was important for the nation, employing 8.5 million people. However, numerous state and federal regulations barred jobseekers with disabilities from enjoying any of the program’s benefits, categorizing these jobseekers as “unemployable.” To make things worse, the Social Security Act of August 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded anyone receiving disability insurance from obtaining employment and exempted workers with disabilities from the national minimum wage, respectively.

The Pioneers

For one particular group of young adults who were frequent visitors to a Manhattan recreation center, such brazen discrimination could not be ignored. Common backgrounds and shared experiences had already brought them together. Besides having similar disabilities, most were children of working-class southern and eastern European immigrants. Their parents had encouraged them toward education and employment despite their disabilities. Their common outlook spurred the group to action.

On May 29, 1935, six of these young adults presented themselves at the local office of the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB) demanding equal access to jobs under the WPA program. After demanding to speak to the ERB director, Oswald Knauth and being denied, they began a sit-in right then and there.

Hyman Abramowitz, 28, who emerged as the leader of the group, was an unemployed watch repairman who used leg braces and crutches due to childhood polio. Florence Haskell, 19, a typist who walked with crutches, had already been disqualified for a clerical job because of her disability. Pauline Portugalo, 21, was a clerical worker who through corrective surgeries was able to walk despite her bout with childhood polio. She was friends with Sylvia Flexer Bassoff also a member of the group. Sara Lasoff, 22, was a file clerk; Harry Friedman, 24, a chemist; and Morris Dolinsky, 26, was a pharmacist.

Over the next few days, Knauth deployed a number of tactics designed to break the occupiers’ resolve but their movement was already beginning to blossom. The group’s action drew support from other people both with and without disabilities, and the attention of news outlets. On the sixth day of the occupation, Knauth agreed to meet with the group and hear their demands, which included fifty WPA jobs to be immediately given to people with disabilities, followed by ten more jobs every week after that. They also demanded assurances that these jobs would pay at or above minimum wage and would not be in segregated “sheltered workshops.”

Without an agreement, nine days after the occupation had begun the police were called in and eleven protesters were arrested. During the ten-day trial that followed large protests were held outside the courthouse and at the ERB office. The protests and news coverage in the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and the Daily Worker spurred the growth of the protestors’ movement. When the trial came to a close on June 28th the three defendants without disabilities were sentenced, while the eight remaining defendants with disabilities were set free to rejoin the protests. That night, the ERB office was stormed in outrage at the court’s decision and 15 more protesters were arrested.

The Next Steps

At this point the group and their cause had attracted many followers and they needed a name. They decided to call themselves the League of the Physically Handicapped and continued to hold more meetings and recruit more members.

When a new WPA office opened in New York City in November of 1935, the League picketed for three weeks until the director conceded to hiring forty League members. Over the course of 1936 the WPA would be forced to hire close to fifteen hundred New Yorkers with disabilities; their struggle was paying off.

The following year thirty-five League members traveled to the nation’s capital intending to directly discuss their issues with President Roosevelt and national WPA Director Harry Hopkins. The group was initially denied a meeting but after two days of occupying the capital’s WPA headquarters Hopkins agreed to meet with the League representatives, only to dismiss their basic argument that people with disabilities were being oppressed and discriminated against.

Out of this apparent defeat came one of the earliest written documents in the Disability Rights Movement. The “Thesis on Conditions of Physically Handicapped,”  a ten-page document that detailed the oppressive conditions faced by people with disabilities in the United States.

What this meant for the Disability Rights Movement

When there is still so much to be done to bring equality to people with disabilities, the League of the Physically Handicapped provided both inspiration and motivation to the movement thereafter. Numerous groups and organizations were formed in the years to follow, including the National Federation of the Blind in 1940 and the Paralyzed Veterans of America in 1947.

The formation and the work of the League and all those who followed kept the fight for disability rights a relevant one, adapting to current political, social, and economical issues and conditions, and laying the groundwork for battles that were years away,  including passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990. In both tactics and goals, the League of the Physically Handicapped left a strong foundation for the disability rights activism that continues today.

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