How Disabled Parking Was Born Of The Civil Rights Movement

Dr Handicap - civil rights

Today in the United States, disabled parking laws are widespread and effective. The U.S. disabled parking program represents the gold standard, and other nations around the world often attempt to emulate the American model. Disabled drivers in America enjoy rights that are not afforded to drivers in many other parts of the world, and this makes the lives of handicapped drivers much easier in the U.S. than in almost any other country. But it was not always like this. Prior to the 1960s, America was a very different place. American society in the first half of the 20th century was much less tolerant and empathetic towards the disadvantaged groups that lived within it. Women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and disabled people were often viewed as second-class citizens during these dark days, and these minority groups had very little in the way of rights. The main catalyst for change was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Throughout this iconic era, brave and determined luminaries such as Rosa Parks, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the cause of equality for all. These heroes, and many others like them, led the fight against discrimination and ultimately paved the way to a fairer, more just United States in which all groups have equal rights.

In modern America, disabled people can get a disabled parking placard with relative ease. People can qualify to use a handicap parking permit if they have any disability from a long list that includes heart disease, lung disease, blindness, deafness, wheelchair or walking aid use, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sensitivity to sunlight, being an amputee, lupus, certain psychological conditions, and even temporary conditions such as a broken leg or pregnancy. A handicap parking permit affords its user special privileges that massively improve their quality of life, such as the ability to park in strategically located disabled parking spaces, and the ability to park in metered spaces for as long as they need for free. Disabled plates and placards are easy to apply for (it can even be done remotely using telemedicine) and free (although in some states, temporary placards cost a small nominal fee). Disabled drivers in the modern United States have comprehensive rights.

Sadly, it was not always like this. Prior to the late 1960s, disabled drivers had no special rights at all. Life was extremely difficult for disabled drivers throughout the period from the advent of mass-produced automobiles up until the late 1960s. During this period, disabled parking spaces were practically non-existent. Disabled drivers were well and truly left to fend for themselves during this time and most disabled people were forced to live very curtailed lives. Their mobility and ability to get around was dramatically limited. Even making a simple trip to the mall was almost impossible for most disabled drivers during this time.

Dr Handicap - MLK Junior

But America in the 1960s was ready for change. People had grown thoroughly repulsed by the levels of inequality that existed in society. Groups who, up until then, had been treated as second-class citizens began to protest and insist that they be treated fairly. These protests grew bigger, louder, and more determined. Millions of people from mainstream society joined in the protests. The civil rights movement grew huge and its momentum became irresistibly powerful. The public consciousness changed. The ideas of fairness and equality for all became deeply believed values. In their millions, people peacefully insisted upon societal reform. By 1968, the civil rights movement had grown so large and loud that the powers that be had no choice but to take note.

In the final years of the 1960s, laws began to be implemented that ensured equal rights for all, and this included disabled drivers. Between 1968 and 1991, a raft of new laws was passed ensuring equal rights for disabled people.

In 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed, which required all federal agencies to ensure that disabled people had access to federal facilities. The ABA mandated signage, curb cuts and disabled parking spaces, and introduced the iconic universal access symbol.

In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was implemented. This Act stated that all federally funded facilities would have to abide by federal regulations. This meant that any program or facility that was in receipt of any government funding was required to provide access for disabled people.

Dr Handicap - disabled parking sign

Next came the Fair Housing Act amendment of 1988, which made illegal any discrimination in the sale or rental of a property on the grounds that a person has a disability. This meant that landlords were required by law to provide disabled access to their buildings.

The most wide-reaching and comprehensive piece of legislation that dealt with the rights of disabled people was the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1991. This historic piece of legislation was campaigned for tirelessly by disability rights activists from the dark days of the 1950s until the dramatic and heroic “Capitol Crawl” protest of 1991, where activists got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the steps of the United States Capitol building. The ADA is an incredibly thorough piece of legislation and it contains most of the details of America’s current disabled parking program.

The passing of the ADA was the culmination of a long battle for equal rights for disabled people that had been smoldering for many decades, but really caught fire during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. So it is certainly fair to say that disabled parking was born of the civil rights movement.