Editor’s Note: This blog was cross-posted from the Administration for Community Living’s blog.
By Bob Williams, Deputy Commissioner, Administration on Disabilities, and Director, Independent Living Administration
The original Rehabilitation Act became law just for the First World War and little change was made to it over the next five decades. In contrast, the landmark legislation that passed in 1973 altered the course of history in fundamental ways. When the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became law, I was just starting my freshman year in high school. My parents and I worked hard for years to win the right, or at least the chance, for me to attend the same school and classes as every other kid in my town. This chance, coupled with the passage of the ’73 Act, opened up doors of opportunities for hundreds of thousands baby boomers with significant disabilities like me and successive generations in ways that seemed like the stuff of fiction 40 years ago.
The Act itself was the subject of intense debate and compromise on the part of Congress and the President. Earlier versions of the bill were vetoed by President Nixon in October 1972 and again in March 1973 because he believed the legislation, though well intended, would lead to unintended consequences both for government and people with disabilities it was intended to assist. This sparked protests led by young disability activists like Judy Heumann and others who took to Madison Avenue in New York City to demand legislation be passed. Months later, when he signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 into law, the President hailed it as creating “expanded job opportunities and further(ing) steps toward independence” as well as demonstrating the good that can come from “executive-legislative cooperation.”