Pioneers in the fight for disability rights

The League of the Physically Handicapped

IT IS commonly held that the inception of the modern US disability rights movement occurred amidst the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, two major developments figure prominently in this narrative.

THE FIRST is the rise of the Independent Living Movement in Berkeley, California. This movement was born of the efforts of a group of disabled University of California students. Politicized by the civil rights struggles of the period, they became active on their Berkeley campus and later established the first independent living center in the United States in 1971. The aim of the center, of which hundreds of others would soon spring up across the country, was to create a space where disabled people could exercise control over all aspects of their lives—professional, medical, social, civic—rather than remain marginalized by a paternalistic society constructed around their exclusion.

The second major landmark of the new disability rights movement was the formation of the group, Disabled In Action (DIA) in New York City, in 1970. Like the independent living centers, DIA sought autonomy for disabled people, but was more explicitly political and organized confrontational protests against discriminatory laws, attitudes, and institutions.

Out of and alongside these two organizations flowed countless springs of disability rights awareness, activism, and organization. This all played a fundamental role in changing the way that society—and most importantly, disabled people themselves—viewed the question of disability. This transformation is best expressed in the articulation of what has come to be known as the social model of disability. In sum, this model explains disability oppression as a phenomenon which limits the self-determination and life opportunities of people with impairments, and which arises primarily from social and political—rather than medical or personal—factors.

In other words, it is not the existence of a physical or mental impairment itself which diminishes one’s life, but rather the systemic unemployment, poverty, discrimination, segregation, etc., imposed upon people with impairments by an inaccessible and unaccommodating society. As Judy Heumann, founder of DIA, put it, “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives—job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”1

The disability rights movement of today can trace its immediate lineage—directly or indirectly—to these 1960s-era progenitors. Yet, it is possible to look even further back in US history to the Depression era of the 1930s, to see the very first emergence of a self-conscious movement for disability rights, organized by disabled people themselves, and promoting a view which closely foreshadows that of the social model.

It goes without saying that the Great Depression that began in 1929 had a devastating impact on the lives of all American workers, with official unemployment rates skyrocketing to 25 percent. But for disabled people the economic crisis hit even harder. One study found that 44 percent of deaf workers who had been employed prior to the crash had lost their jobs by 1935. The overall unemployment rate for disabled people was probably upwards of 80 percent, translating into crushing levels of poverty.2

Finding employment had been extremely difficult for disabled workers even in times of economic prosperity. Industrial capitalism had come to develop a tendency to discard all those whose labor was deemed insufficiently productive or too costly in relation to the amount of profit they could create for an employer.

The years leading up to and during the Great Depression saw a veritable explosion in the popularity of eugenicist ideas among the political, medical, and economic elite of the United States. These ideas posited all disabled people as so much worthless refuse to be cast aside in the “survival of the fittest” struggle that was free-market capitalism. As a consequence, millions of disabled people were subjected to forced institutionalization, sterilization, and/or death at the hands of both private and public officials.

Yet for all its nightmarish features, the 1930s were also marked by a great upsurge in working-class radicalism and resistance against exploitation and oppression. Strikes, occupations, sitdowns, pickets, and demonstrations for jobs, welfare relief, and against evictions, and for many other reasons became commonplace. Millions of workers formed labor unions to protect and extend their rights. Notably, the American Communist Party (CP) also grew during this period into a substantial force on the US left. It ballooned to a membership of approximately eighty thousand, with hundreds of thousands more passing through its ranks.

As a consequence of all this turmoil and struggle, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt had begun implementation of its New Deal program in the mid-1930s. A centerpiece of the New Deal was the creation of millions of federal jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), inaugurated in January of 1935.

Yet even the WPA—as important a victory as it was for the working class—proved to be woefully limited in its scope. Among other flaws, state and federal WPA regulations barred disabled jobseekers from enjoying any of the program’s benefits, categorizing such individuals as “unemployable.” WPA advertisements underlined this point by explicitly stating that “only able-bodied American job-seekers” need apply.

To make matters worse, two additional pieces of New Deal legislation, following on the heels of the WPA, further codified federal discrimination against disabled people. The Social Security Act of August 1935 specifically defined “disability” as “inability to engage in substantial gainful work,” thus precluding anyone receiving any disability insurance from obtaining employment. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage, exempted workers with disabilities from the law’s coverage, thus giving official sanction to the common practice of employing disabled people in “sheltered workshops” where they were paid a mere pittance for their labor.

For one particular group of disabled workers living in New York City, such blatant discrimination on the part of the putatively progressive Roosevelt administration was simply too much to endure passively. On May 29, 1935, six of these individuals presented at the local office of the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB) and demanded equal access to jobs under the new federal relief program. When told they did not qualify, being “unemployable,” they demanded to speak with the ERB director, Oswald Knauth. When Knauth refused, they began a sit-in right then and there, initiating an indefinite occupation of the ERB office.3

This particular group of protesters was not yet part of any formal organization, but they had come to know each other through their previous involvement with radical politics and labor activism. Most had been at least peripherally involved in the activities of the CP.

Undoubtedly, this prior experience played a role in giving them the confidence to defy the prevailing bigotries regarding disabled people as social and medical “invalids.” Rather, they situated their struggle and their demands on an explicitly political terrain. They forthrightly referred to themselves as “handicapped” rather than “cripples,” “invalids,” or any of the other then-common derogatory euphemisms.

As one participant recalled, “What started it was finding out that jobs were available, that the government was handing out jobs . . .  everybody was getting jobs . . . those of us who were militant just refused to accept the fact that we were the only people who were looked upon as not worthy, not capable of work.”4

When the second day of the occupation began, the protesters decided to drastically expand the action. They sent one of their numbers over to a nearby rally being held by the CP in Madison Square Garden in order to appeal for help. Immediately, the emissary returned with several dozen reinforcements. Before long, hundreds of people were picketing outside the ERB office, with thousands more looking on. By the day’s end, the action had drawn the support of members of the local Writer’s Union, the Young Communists of America, and the Unemployment Council. It had also drawn the attention of various media outlets, which reported on the protest in a predictably sensationalized manner.

Over the next several days, Knauth employed a number of tactics designed to break the occupiers’ resolve. Yet the sit-in persisted. A steady group of picketers—disabled and nondisabled—held constant vigil outside. Though the number of picketers slowly dwindled as the days wore on, newcomers continuously showed up to lend their efforts to the fight. This included visits from disabled people throughout the region who had read reports of the action and identified with it.

On the sixth day of the occupation, Knauth finally conceded to a meeting with the group at which point he was informed of their demands. First, they wanted fifty jobs to be immediately given to supporters of their as-of-yet unnamed organization, followed by ten more jobs every week following. Second, the jobs must be at or above minimum wage. Finally, the jobs must not be in segregated “sheltered workshops” or as part of a charity, but rather in an integrated setting with nondisabled workers.

Knauth peremptorily stated that he could not acquiesce and that, furthermore, his policies were merely in compliance with those of the federal government. At this point, one of the occupiers, a man named Hyman Abramowitz, angrily retorted, “That’s not a good enough answer. We are all handicapped and are being discriminated against.” He then proceeded to indict the Roosevelt administration. He accused Roosevelt of “trying to fix things so that no physically handicapped person can get a job, so that all of us will have to go on home relief. . . . We don’t want charity. We want jobs.”5

Though few would have been aware of it at the time, the irony was that Roosevelt himself was also disabled. In fact, he was impaired in much the same way as Abramowitz—paralyzed from the waist down due to a childhood bout of polio. The only difference between these two men, one from the working class and one from the ruling class, was that Roosevelt and his presidential entourage were able to develop an elaborate system that kept his impairment all but completely hidden from the public. Thus, while Abramowitz fought for the right of all disabled people to obtain jobs, Roosevelt used the power of his position to deny this right to millions of other disabled people less fortunate than himself.6

Nine days after the occupation had begun, the police were finally called in to quell the protest. After roughing up the defiant occupiers and their supporters outside, they dragged away eleven protesters in handcuffs.

In the days following, while the eleven awaited trial, protesters continued to confront Knauth at a number of public appearances he made around the city. Things escalated further when the trial began later that month. On the first two days of the ten-day trial, large protests were held at the courthouse and at the ERB office, which led to yet more arrests. Inside the courtroom, things were just as tumultuous, with the defendants and their supporters generally creating a ruckus, shouting slogans, and making speeches.

By this time, the coverage of the struggle by the local media had morphed from a sort of mild, if not bewildered, contempt into outright bigotry. The newspapers and ERB officials began derisively referring to the defendants as “the Communist cripples.” On the one hand, it was argued that the disabled activists were mere helpless dupes being used by the CP for “dramatic effect.” On the other hand, they were portrayed as sly manipulators who were “taking advantage of their physical disabilities” in order to further their irrational cause. In all cases they were presented as pathetic and inferior.7

The day after the initial police raid, the New York Herald Tribune smugly reported “the crippled picketers screamed hysterically and fought with forty patrolmen who did everything they could to avoid violence.” A few days later the New York Post described a protest against Knauth held at city hall in this way: “Ten vociferous cripples and a handful of onlookers comprised a mass meeting . . . to protest treatment of invalids on relief rolls.”

For its part, the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the CP, regularly covered and publicized the protests in generally partisan terms. This was not always unproblematic, however, as the articles would sometimes take a paternalistic tone, for instance describing “helpless crippled people” being beaten by police. Nonetheless, the Daily Worker’s message was always unambiguously one of support for the struggle.8

On June 28, the trial finally came to a close with the judge declaring all of the defendants guilty of disorderly conduct. However, betraying his own confused prejudice, he only sentenced the three nondisabled defendants to serve time in jail. The upshot was that, regardless of the judge’s intentions, the eight remaining disabled defendants were now immediately free to rejoin their comrades protesting in the streets.

Later that evening, an angry throng of protesters once again stormed the ERB office in outrage at the court’s verdict. This time a phalanx of police had been stationed at the ready and a protracted melee ensued, ending with the arrest of fifteen more protesters. With these final mass arrests, the dramatic opening phase of the struggle had drawn to a close. But the activists who had been involved were just getting started.

The occupation, the protests, the trial and its aftermath, all served to significantly propel the group’s public notoriety. They had attracted a sizable number of adherents and supporters to their movement and had established themselves as serious fighters. On this basis, they decided to formally organize on a permanent basis. They adopted the name, the League of the Physically Handicapped (LPH).

People had never before seen anything quite like the League. They completely defied the prevailing one-dimensional image of disabled people as pitiful or powerless. They demanded respect and equality, and in collectively fighting back against their oppression, had come to construct a new identity for themselves that rejected their supposed inferiority. This was reflected in the slogans they used at protests, such as, “We don’t want tin cups. We want jobs,” “We are lame but we can work,” and, “Handicapped workers must live, give us jobs.”9

As one League member, Florence Haskell, later recalled, “You have to understand that among our people, they were self-conscious about their physical disabilities.. . . They didn’t like being stared at. They didn’t want to be looked at. . . I think [the protests] not only gave us jobs, but it gave us dignity, and a sense of, ‘We are people too.’”10

During the rest of 1935 the League held regular meetings, addressed labor union gatherings, and recruited more members. In November a new WPA office was opened in New York City and the League immediately subjected it to fresh rounds of picketing. They distributed leaflets that read, “In private business the Physically Handicapped invariably are discriminated against. They work harder for less wages.. . . It is because of this discrimination that we demand the government recognize its obligation to make adequate provisions for handicapped people in the Works Relief Program.”11

After three weeks of picketing, the League’s efforts finally bore fruit. The local director of the WPA conceded to hiring forty of its members. But the League was not satisfied. “The [WPA] officials figured if they hired the most active of us . . . it might kill the thing,” one League member recounted. “But instead of killing it, more handicapped came to the picket line.”12

The LPH had demonstrated that progress could be won through struggle. For many, this discovery proved contagious. Over the course of the following year, the WPA would be forced to give close to fifteen hundred jobs to disabled New Yorkers.13

Drawing confidence from its local successes—and no longer content with winning a limited number of jobs for its members—the League soon set its sights even higher. It was now determined to directly challenge the WPA’s discriminatory federal policy itself.

By early 1936, League pickets outside of the New York WPA office explicitly began to raise precisely this demand. Then, in May of that year, thirty-five League members traveled to Washington, DC, in order to bring their grievance directly to Roosevelt and the national head of the WPA, Harry Hopkins. When League activists arrived in DC they quickly discovered that neither Roosevelt nor Hopkins were willing to meet with them. They then decided to employ their tried-and-true tactic and commenced a sit-in occupation of the federal headquarters of the WPA.

The newly-elected president of the League, twenty-one-year-old Sylvia Flexer Bassoff, explained to reporters,

Unable to get any satisfaction in New York, we resolved to come here and ask the aid of Mr. Hopkins in providing WPA employment. They class us as unemployables, despite the fact that our members include. . ., teachers, chemists, . . . and others who are professionally skilled. We are going to stay here until Mr. Hopkins does see us. Until then nothing can make us leave.” League members, she said the next day, were “sick of the humiliation of poor jobs at best [and] often no work at all.” They were tired too of “getting the same old stock phrases that the handicapped have been getting for years.” They wanted, she said, “not sympathy-but a concrete plan to end discrimination . . . on WPA projects”14

The occupation continued over the next foty-eight hours until Hopkins finally relented to a meeting with the League representatives. Yet he still remained obstinate. He defended the administration’s position, maintaining that disabled people were indeed “unemployable,” and completely dismissed the League’s basic argument that disabled people were in any way being oppressed, discriminated against, or otherwise disenfranchised as a social group within society. The League representatives then left DC, smoldering from the experience.

The League took the ignorance expressed by Hopkins as a sort of challenge. It was in no small part as a result of this that the League decided to publish an important manifesto on disability in August 1936. Titled, “Thesis on Conditions of Physically Handicapped,” copies of the document were distributed to Roosevelt, Hopkins, the press, and the public.15

The stated purpose of the “Thesis” was to detail the reality of the oppressive conditions faced by disabled people in the United States—their constant “struggle for social and economic security.” Moreover, it advanced the notion that this struggle was not a consequence of their impairment, but rather “unjust restrictions” and “unfounded prejudices”—in other words, discriminatory policy and perception.

The “Thesis” pointed out the incongruity of the fact that the federal government practiced affirmative action in employment with respect to disabled veterans, yet maintained that all other disabled people were “unemployable.” Of course, the only difference between these two groups was the source of their impairment. Thus, the government on the one hand demonstrated that disabled people could be brought into the workforce, while on the other hand “deterring and hindering” all those whose disabilities were nonmilitary in origin.

Indeed, though the “Thesis” did not further expand upon this, the false divide created by the government between disabled veterans and civilians was extremely important. For instance, studies show that during World War I, far more Americans were killed or injured while working in the mines of West Virginia than while fighting abroad in Europe. During the first few years of World War II, a similar phenomenon held, with the industrial accident rate hitting an all-time high amidst wartime production speedups.16 This meant that the war and its concomitant increase in the domestic rate of exploitation of workers produced a dramatic increase in the number of disabled Americans. Yet the types of aid extended by the government to different groups of disabled people varied greatly according to a rigid hierarchy of disability classifications, with war wounded at the top, injured workers in the middle, and those born with severe disabilities at the bottom. Of course, the whole scale shifted, too, when factoring in considerations of race, gender, and class.

Next, the “Thesis” proceeded to detail the ramifications of the harmful bias inherent in government work-relief policies and projects. Disabled people generally faced one of three fates at the hands of state employment agencies. Either they were declared “unemployable” and rejected outright; they were given temporary jobs at “miserably low wages,” which sometimes included being sent “out as strike-breakers”; or finally they might be placed in a dreaded sheltered workshop.

Originally, sheltered workshops developed as a sort of charitable venture in which disabled people were employed in various nonprofit enterprises. However, this practice soon expanded into the private and government sector as well. These workshops were generally completely segregated, had poor working conditions, and paid next to nothing. Then, as now, sheltered workshops were exempted from minimum wage requirements and other labor regulations. They used “the guise of social service,” the “Thesis” argued, while actually engaging in “shameful exploitation.” In particular, the “Thesis” pointed to those workshops run by the Red Cross under its Institute for Crippled and Disabled as especially deserving of scorn in this area.

Beyond the issue of employment bias, the “Thesis” criticized the limited welfare assistance, or “home relief,” provided by state and government agencies. Such aid was usually insufficient for nondisabled recipients, and “doubly insufficient” for those with disabilities, owing to the greater costs associated with their use of assistive technology and health care needs. The “Thesis” pointed out that such meager relief forced many recipients to resort to begging on the street, yet the proliferation of antibegging ordinances—many of which were specifically directed at disabled beggars—prevented them from undertaking even this desperate measure, on pain of imprisonment.

Finally, the “Thesis” leveled a generalized attack on “the whole Emergency Program and all the social legislation of the New Deal” for being “consistently neglectful” of the needs and problems of disabled people. “As far as the [Roosevelt] Administration was concerned,” the “Thesis” charged, “there were no such persons, there was no handicapped problem.”

The “Thesis” represents one of the most important historical documents in the disability rights movement. It was the first treatise of its kind to be both explicitly political—even militant—in its condemnation of the oppression of disabled people. In addition, it was a product of the efforts of disabled people themselves, fighting to articulate their own demands and their own needs.

Much like those who would come after them, the disability rights activists in the League had struggled to redefine disability as a social, rather than a medical or pathological, phenomenon. The problems faced by disabled people in society thus required collective political action rather than personal rehabilitation.

The publication of the “Thesis” marked the apex of the League’s activity. During the fall and winter of 1936 the League continued to protest against WPA discrimination as well as fight to maintain the jobs they had already won. However, in the spring of 1937, WPA offices nationwide began massive layoffs, cutting hundreds of thousands of workers from its ranks. In response, WPA workers across the country engaged in large strikes, demonstrations, and marches. Once again, the CP played an outsized role in this resistance, while the League figured prominently in various actions in New York City.

At one massive demonstration against WPA cuts held in May in New York City, League activists marched alongside other disabled workers at the head of a procession numbering in the tens of thousands. The Daily Worker reported that the “front ranks of the 9 hour long demonstration” were populated by “a group of deaf mute and blind workers. . . . Deaf workers marched arm in arm as escorts for the militant blind strikers.”

The article further quoted a number of disabled marchers angry at pay and job discrimination on WPA projects. One person interviewed felt that, if any wage difference were to exist, it should be that disabled people get more pay, not less, than their nondisabled counterparts, because their costs of living were greater. “We are handicapped badly—and handicapped further with the wages we get,” he argued.17

In August 1937, the Workers Alliance of America—a group closely affiliated with the CP—organized a large action in Washington, DC, in which thousands of people descended on the Capitol lawn. The stated aim of the action was to demand that Roosevelt stop the WPA cutbacks and reinstate the half million WPA workers whose jobs had already been cut.

Thirty-three delegates from the League made the trip down to DC in order to participate in the action. While there, they were also able to secure another meeting with WPA chief, Harry Hopkins. Perhaps they held out hope that he had been moved by their “Thesis.” In fact, the meeting proved to be just as unproductive as the previous one. The League delegates grudgingly returned home empty-handed, though promising to “return in larger numbers within a short time.”18

As it turns out, this promise never materialized. By 1938 the League appears to have dissolved completely. So what accounts for this sudden drop-off in activity? It might be helpful to look at the broader context.

As discussed above, the CP exerted a strong influence on the League. The CP in turn was influenced heavily by the foreign policy needs of the Stalinist regime then in power in the USSR. This meant that throughout the course of the 1930s the CP went through a number of sudden and dramatic transformations. In particular, by the end of 1936 the CP had begun to drastically curtail its open criticism of the Roosevelt administration. As fascism grew in power throughout Europe, the USSR began looking for allies among the “progressive” nations of the world. Therefore, the CP was directed to ingratiate itself with Roosevelt in order to create a “popular front” against fascism.

Thus, even as the CP played a key role in organizing protests against the WPA cuts in 1937, it did so in an increasingly diffident manner. So, for instance, the very next day following the mass mobilization on Washington, DC, in August 1937, the Daily Worker announced in unqualified terms that the workers had won a complete “victory” insofar as Roosevelt had delivered a written promise to the Workers Alliance to stop any further cuts. The original demand to reinstate the half million laid off WPA workers had quietly disappeared overnight.19 Moreover, even this supposed “victory” proved illusory as WPA cuts continued unabated over the next several years.

Before long, the CP would become a stalwart defender of Roosevelt against his critics on both the political left and the right, even going so far as to actively suppress war industry strikes and work stoppages, which the CP deemed detrimental to the “national war effort.”

While it is clear that the League was in no way controlled by the CP, League activists nonetheless would have been affected by changes in the politics, tactics, and arguments of those CP members around them. League activists would have been discouraged by this latter group from continuing their protests directed at Roosevelt; they would have been told that their narrow fight for disability rights was now trumped in importance by the greater fight against fascism.

The further tragedy of this whole episode was that the League’s loose connection to the CP meant that its memory and legacy were virtually erased in the wave of anticommunist witch hunts and McCarthyite repression that swept the nation in the 1940s and 1950s. Years later, League members would cite the increase in redbaiting and bitter divisions over political ideology as the source of the group’s degeneration.20 Like much of the radical left during and after the war, the League was crushed under the weight of domestic repression on the one hand, and the political twists-and-turns of the CP on the other. This is the primary reason for the total lack of continuity between the League’s activities of the 1930s and the new disability rights movement that reemerged in the 1970s.

Today, the disability rights movement can pride itself on having won important gains over the years, not the least of which was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Yet the fundamental oppression of disabled people in this country persists, including high unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and police brutality; the re-emergence of mass institutionalization in prisons and nursing homes; and discriminatory laws limiting the rights of disabled people to marry, have children, and exercise total autonomy over their lives.

Truly, the fight for disabled people’s liberation remains an urgent project of the present. And it is for this reason that the significance of the League of the Physically Handicapped endures.


  1. Joseph Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994), Kindle edition.
  2. Kim Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 134.
  3. Paul K. Longmore, and David Goldberger, “The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: A Case Study in the New Disability History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Dec., 2000), 888.
  4. Ibid., 899.
  5. Ibid., 901–902.
  6. Fleischer, Doris Zames, and Frieda Zames, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). 1–4.
  7. Longmore, 902–903.
  8. Ibid., 903–904.
  9. Ibid., 904.
  10. Ibid., 904–905.
  11. Ibid., 905.
  12. Ibid., 906.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 907.
  15. Ibid., 908.
  16. Nielson, A Disability History of the United States, 149, 158.
  17. “36,000 on Projects Demonstrate Demonstrate Against Threat of WPA Cuts,” Daily Worker, May 28, 1937, Harvard University Library microfilm.
  18. Longmore, 919.
  19. “How Workers Alliance Forced WPA To Stop Slashing Rolls,” Daily Worker, August 27, 1937: 5, Harvard University Library microfilm.
  20. Longmore, 920.

 

Issue #91

Winter 2013-14

Black feminism and intersectionality

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