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Accessibilityin context of disability refers to a variety of different constructs that mutually affect the relationship between the experience of disability, society, and individual. It is a relatively new concept that is mainly restricted to progressive countries, which involves implementing and evolving many different techniques, regulations, and programs aiming to create an inclusive environment for all members of society. [1]


Disability has been a part of the lives of humans forever and the meaning has been evolving continuously. Generally those who were known to have a disability were viewed as people who were innately impaired and burdensome, and were severely marginalized and often abused up until the 1800's. There were incidences of progression as early as the 1700's, which have all contributed to where we have arrived to do - striving toward creating an environment that one can choose to interact with, negotiate, and feel comfortable in their accessibility within a broader context.[2]


In 1784 Valentin Huay established the "Institute for Blind youth after seeing the maltreatment of blind children. In 1973 Phillipe Pinel, a French psychiatrist, unchained and promoted better treatment of the patients in the asylum he was practicing in. This was a revolutionary moment, because prior to this it had been common practice to chain up every person considered mentally ill and many people died as a result of this mistreatment. [3]


Pinel then continued on to write Treatise on Insanity in 1800, outlining the classifcations for four major mental illnesses: melancholy (now referred to as depression), dementia, mania without delirium, and mania with delirium. [3]Following Pinels observations, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard established the methodology behind the principles and procedures that are used today in the education of the mentally disabled while working with Victor Aveyron, who was a boy who lived in the wild and did not know how to read, speak, understand language, among many other things. Gaspard eventually was able to teach him to read, write, and speak a few words. [4] Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the first to believe that mental illness was caused by disease of the brain, not because of supernatural explanations as was the tendency in thought at the time. In 1812 he published "Observations and Inquiries upon the Diseases of the Mind, which was the first documentation of it's kind to explain mental illness and disorder. [5]April 15, 1817, Thomas H. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc open the doors to the American School for the Death, marking the first real attempt America made to properly educated those with disabilities. In 1829 the raised point alphabet was invented by Louis Braille, a revolutionary invention for the blind. Legislation is passed in Ontario granting authority to establish the first provincial asylum for people with a developmental disability in 1839. In 1844 The Association of Medical Superintendent of American Institutions for the Insane was founded, predating the current influential American Psychiatric Association. Perkins Institution in Massachusetts develops the first "sheltered workshop fro the blind in 1849. In 1859 The New York State Lunatic Asylum for Insane Convicts was opened out of necessity due to violent criminals being in care with mentally ill patients that were voluntarily seeking out help. Dr. William Little presents a description and cause of Cerebral Palsy, formerly known as Little's Disease in 1861. 1861-1865 was the beginning of a turning point for America and their view on disability, as this was the time of the American Civil War, which resulted in over 30,000 amputees in the United States alone. After being granted the right to open institutions for those with developmental disabilities, The Government of Ontario opens "Orillia Asylum for Idiots', which would eventually have 2,600 residents. [6] Finally, on June 27, 1890 The Dependent and Disability Pension Act was signed by President Benjamin Harrison after being passed by congress. One of the most liberal Acts up until this point, it included pension payments to all those who had served a minimum of ninety days and were either unable to do manual work or were honourably discharged. [7]

1900's - 1940's

Once the 1990’s came around, there were both terrible laws being passed and practices encouraging the alienation and maltreatment of individuals living with disability, but also movement in the right direction with education, technologies, and legislation. Sterilization in the beginning the 1990’s promoted of lack of autonomy and rights for those who were deemed disabled. Compulsory sterilization for the purpose of eugenics became rapid practice in the United States beginning in 1907. Indiana was the first state to pass the law for sterilization without consent on "confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists," which was later ruled unconstitutional in 1921. 1909 California and Washington follow suit and enact legislation regarding sterilization. From 1928 to 1972, just under 3,000 recorded sterilizations were performed on children and adults alike in Alberta due to the passing of the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928. British Columbia became the second and last province in Canada to pass an act similar to that of Alberta called The Sexual Sterilization Act of B.C. [8]

Samuel Orton begins his extensive study of dyslexia and learning deficits in brain damaged children, he believed that it could be neurological versus visual. This lead to his major contributions regarding dyslexia and education, his main concept of structured, sequential, and multi-sensory teaching, which has helped children and adults alike learn the techniques they need to attain their personal goals. Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw invent the first modern respirator, the iron lung in 1927. This is a chamber that provides artificial respiration for polio patients being treated for respiratory muscle paralysis. [9]

In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt, a man paralyzed from the waist down, was elected president. He later signed the Social Security Act, which established the first program and assistance for those living with disability in 1935.[10]


As a result of World War II there were not only an influx of individuals who had developed either or both physical and mental disabilities, but there was an influx of activists who were fighting for the rights and inclusiveness of those living with disability. In 1948 Dr. A Howard Rusk, otherwise known as “The Father of Rehabilitation” of New York City, founded the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. This is where he began his work with veterans who lived with disability, developing techniques and therapy to allow these individuals to be able to function in the community to the best of their abilities. This approach is commonly used today and was a step forward in viewing those with disabilities as equals. From 1950 – 1950’s veterans, parents and clinicians began actively voicing their needs and concerns, beginning with the barrier free movement, which proposed National Barrier-Free Standards. The creation of the Association for Retarded Citizens (now known as the Arc) began in 1950, where parents concerned for their children with disabilities came together to form an inclusive and supportive community. [11][12][12][12]

From 1955-1960 there were considerable efforts being made to create an inclusive environment for all. Saskatchewan Association for Community of living was founded in 1955, calling for deinstitutionalization. With the aim of creating a community for those living with disability The Canadian Association for Community Living began in 1958. The American Standards Association made the first publication about Accessibility Standard in 1961, which lead to many states adapting this model for any future architecture. [13]

For the first time in US history an act is passed that provides funding for State Developmental Disabilities, accommodations and resources at universities, and Protection and Advocacy Systems and programming – The Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Health Centers Construction Act of 1963. [14] Closely followed by the passing of the Act of 1963 the Civil Rights Bill of 1964is passed without acknowledging those who are disabled. [15]In 1965 Medicaid begins to finance the medical expenditures of those with certain disabilities or those who have low socio economic status according to Title XIX (19) of the Social Security Act A revolutionary Act of 1968 helps lay the foundation for Universal Design, The Architectural Barriers Act requires that all buildings that are federally funded be made to accommodate those with physical limitations. [16]

1970’s – 1990’s

1972 it was made illegal to sterilize and acknowledged it is against human rights to sterilize people without consent, Repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta.[17] This was closely followed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, which determines that it is illegal for any government funded/run agencies to discriminate against those with disability, this includes public education up until the university level, any government agency, and any other facility or institution that receives federal financial support.[18]This is accompanied by Nova Scotia making an amendment to the [ Human Rights Act, making it illegal to deny those with disability the right to employment based on discriminatory grounds. In 1974 the United States eliminates the last “Ugly Law”, which allowed brutal and unwarranted arrests of those with a disability by the police. The Education for Handicapped Children Act</ref> was passed in 1975 in the United States, which allowed quality education at no cost for all children. 1977 marked the year that the Canadian Human Rights Act was introduced, and in 1985 included those with disability as well as minorities, which made it illegal to discriminate against people based on factors they could not change. The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) was introduced in 1980 in United States, giving the Department of Justice the authority to sue any institution at the state, or local level, who contains a person against their will. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedomsprotected those with physical disability, and monumentally included those with mental disability, from discrimination, proposed in 1982, but enacted in 1985.Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 passed to allow financially attainable access to technology related assistance.

In 1978 The National Council on Disability was founded in the United States and was given authority to overlook all federal polices and programs in regards to disability, as well as establishing a board of advisory in public education. Alan Reich, a quadriplegic, founded the National Organization of Disability in 1982 leading to mass improvements in the lives and resources for those living with disability all over the United States. In 1987 the House of Commons established the Standing Committee on the Status of Disabled persons, which since then, have had the authority to propose, assess, monitor, promote, all motives aimed at attaining and retaining the integrity and equality of all disabled citizens of Canada. In the United States, 1988, it became mandate that a certain percentage of family housing be accessible be available to those deemed disabled in accordance with The Fair Housing Amendments Act.[19]

1990 -

Americans with Disabilities Act was officially passed and incorporated into legislation in 1990. Under the Mulroney government, Canada launches a 5-year National Strategy for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities in 1991, the initiative aimed at attaining equal access and integration for the disabled. In 2001, Ontarians with a Disability act was passed, which had originally been introduced by a deaf Member of Provincial Parliament, Gary Malkowski. In order to make telecommunications accessible to all individuals that Accessible Computer and Telecomm Equipment Act was introduced in 1996, beginning a whole new line of accessibility.[20]

1997-1998 the Canadian Liberal government under Chrétien founded the Opportunities Fund (which still exists now) and published In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues- both of which were meant to lay the foundation for a design to make Canada a more integrated and accessible society for all. The Supreme Court of British Columbia made a ruling in 1997 making it mandatory that sign language interpreters be available in case of a health emergency to those who need them in order to ensure equality in medical care.[21] On Dec. 3, 1999 the United States congress passed The Ticket to Work and Incentive Improvements Act of 1999, which included an expansion of Medicaid and Medicare would ensure coverage for the beneficiaries of the disabled would not experience loss of any benefits. In 2001 the Liberal government of Canada created the Office for Disability Issues which introduced an indepth collaboration between government officials, the ministry, the community, and the individuals with disability or the caregiver (s) in Saskatchewan. In support of quality education for all children the Ontarians with Disabilites Act was officially proclaimed in September 2002. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 set out procedures and initiatives to make Ontario completely accessible by 2025. The UN makes it optional protocol to include the history of disability rights as curriculum for students prior to post secondary education, and the first bill to introduce a requirement for such curricula was introduced in West Virginia. UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities seeks to create an accessible society for all people and Canada signs on March 30, 2007. The Canadian Supreme Court makes a ruling allowing adults with mental disabilities to give testimonies that are considered reliable in 2012.[22]

Current Universal Design

Advocates of a barrier-free design such as those from the movement of the 1950’s recognized the need for environments and structures to be more accessible, especially as populations were growing in various kinds of disability. This is what lead to what is today called the universal design.

Universal design has the aim of being able to integrate people living with disability into this world with as ease, or as close to as much ease as people without disability, without necessity of adaptation. [23]

Current Politics and Legislation

Legislation has evolved to include not only working environments, educational systems, but also all services and facilities everyone pays for, so this would include recreation centres, provincial/state parks. This is not limited to the United States, in fact, the United Nation has outlinedregulationsand expectations for countries in Conventions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. [24]

In the recent past legislation and public knowledge in regards to disability has been exclusive to physical disability, but has recently made strives to be inclusive of those who suffer very real “invisible illnesses” such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and other neurological illnesses. So although facilities are required to be attentive to the physical needs of others, for example wheel chair ramps and elevators, they are now being required to attempt to accommodate those with mental illness.

Legislation in different Countries

Although the UN sets out clear guidelines about how accessibility should be approached, facilitated, and implemented, there are differences from country to country, and even from province to province, and state to state.

In Canada legislation is at both the provincial and federal level when it comes to disability. Provincial and municipality regulations includes:

Winnipeg Accessibility Design Standards, which outline everything from general access and circulation to washroom facilities [25]

Accessibility in Ontario which is in accordance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005

City of Toronto Accessibility Design Guidelines, which includes guidelines for bridges and walkways, to the accessibility of restaurants and balconies

Canadian federal legislation includes Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977, the Employment Equity Act of 1995 and the Canadian Labour Code of 1985, which includes Division XIII.2 Long Term Disability Plans, and citizens have been working toward a Canadians with Disabilities Act where the policy areas will include Employment, Education, Citizenship, Health services that will be accounted for by modifying legislation and program entitlements. [26]

In the United States of America the Americans withDisabilities Act of 1990 is the current federal mandate, which includes regulations regarding employment, public transportation, and facilities.[27]

The United Kingdom follows the Equality Act of 2010 , which has multiple guidelines and legislation regarding accessibility and has national applications.

In Australia the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 is the main facilitator for ensuring accessibility, which mainly prohibits discrimination against those who are disabled.

The European Accessibility Act

The European Accessibility Act has been proposed with initiatives to harmonize people of all sorts, giving everyone the rights, freedoms, and inclusion they are entitled to as a human being. It acknowledges the need for support, resources, and accessibility for the elderly and disabled, and have many platforms stating their position. [28]


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  16. , Ellen. (1965). Implications of the 1965 Amendments to the Social Security Act. Social Work. 10 (4): 10-15.
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  20. Ontario (2011). Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Chapter 32.
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