History of Independent Living

As with most major social changes or phenomena, the Independent Living (IL) movement did not happen over night in the U.S. The history of the independent living movement in the United States can be traced back to as early as the 1850s, when deaf people began establishing local organizations to advocate for their interests. These local groups merged into the National Association for the Deaf in 1880.

Protesting can be traced back to the depression years in the 1930’s. The League of the Physically Handicapped held protests against the federal government for discrimination against disabled people in federal programs.

The National Federation of the Blind and the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped were organized in the early 1940s. Disabled soldiers returning from World War II established the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The Independent Living Movement grew out of the Disability Rights Movement, which began in the 1960s. And the Disability Rights Movement was closely tied to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Both movements share basic issues — disgraceful treatment as a result of bigotry and mistaken stereotypes in housing, education, transportation, and employment — and their strategies and tactics are very similar.

The history of the independent living movement and its driving philosophy also have much in common with other political and social movements that flourished the late 1960s and early 1970s. At least five parallel and transformative social movements influenced and energized the disability rights and independent living movement during the second half of the 20th century.

Timeline of the Independent Living Movement

  • 1964

    Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, and creed — later, gender was added as a protected class.
  • President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964


The Architectural Barriers Act is generally considered to be the first ever federal disability rights legislation.

  • 1970

    The Physically Disabled Students Program is founded by Ed Roberts, John Hessler, Hale Zukas and others at the University of California at Berkeley

    Urban Mass Transit Act requires that all new mass transit vehicles be equipped with wheelchair lifts. As mentioned earlier, it was twenty years, primarily because of machinations of the American Public Transit Association (APTA), before the p art of the law requiring wheelchair lifts was implemented.

  • Ed Roberts and a friend at a UC Berkeley football game

  • 1972

    The first Center for Independent Living was founded by disability activists, led by Ed Roberts, in Berkeley, California. These Centers were created to offer peer support and role modeling, and are run and controlled by persons with disabilities. This Center became the model for hundreds of independent learning programs across the United States.
  • Students protest at UC Berkeley

  • Congress passes a rehabilitation bill which is vetoed by President Richard Nixon. Judy Heumann, an early leader for disability rights, stages a sit-in on Madison avenue.
  • Judy Heumann’s protest on Madison Avenue

  • 1973

    Congress overrides Nixon’s veto and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 becomes law. Passage of this pivotal law was the beginning of the ongoing fight for implementation and revision of the law according to the vision of independent living advocates and disability rights activists. Key language prohibits discrimination in federal programs and services and all other programs or services receiving federal funding.
  • Protesters at a sit-in San Francisco


Ed Roberts becomes the director of the California Department of Rehabilitation

Wade Blank founded the Atlantis Community, a model for community-based, consumer-controlled, Independent Living.


Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights Act among other things, establishes Protection and Advocacy (P & A).

Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) requires free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible for children with disabilities. This law is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) is established in Houston, Texas.

  • 1978

    Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments provides for consumer-controlled centers for independent living and creates the National Council of the Handicapped.
  • Protesters in 1978 at the Federal Aviation Administration

  • 1979

    Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) founded in Berkeley, CA.

    First ten states receive Title VII funding through the Rehabilitation Act.

    U.S. Supreme Court rules that, under Section 504 of the Rehab Act, programs receiving federal funds must make “reasonable modifications.”

  • DREDF Group in 1979

  • 1980

    Max Starkloff, Charlie Carr, and Marca Bristo founded the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL).
  • Max Starkloff painting

  • 1983

    American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) is organized.

    Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann and Joan Leon found the World Institute on Disability in Oakland, California.

    Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act provides for the Client Assistance Program (CAP), an advocacy program for consumers of rehabilitation and independent living services.

  • ADAPT protesters in the 1980s


The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act.


Mental Illness Bill of Rights Act requires protection and advocacy services (P & A) for people with mental illness.


National Council on the Handicapped issues Toward Independence, citing the need for federal civil rights legislation (eventually passed as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).

Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) founded.


Civil Rights Restoration Act counteracts bad case law by clarifying Congress’ original intention that under the Rehabilitation Act, discrimination in ANY program or service that is a part of an entity receiving federal funding — not just the part which actually and directly receives the funding — is illegal.

Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and provides for equal access to air transportation services.

Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibits discrimination in housing against people with disabilities and families with children. Also provides for architectural accessibility of certain new housing units, renovation of existing units, and accessibility modifications at the renter’s expense.

  • 1990

    Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed by President George HW Bush on July 26 in a ceremony on the White House lawn provides comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities; closely modeled after the Civil Rights Act and the Section 504 of Title V of the Rehabilitation Act and its regulations.

    Education for All Handicapped Children Act amended and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

    ADAPT changes its name to American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today.

  • President George HW Bush signs the ADA in 1990


Rehabilitation Act Amendments (restructured Title VII to set standards for CIL, to create independent Statewide IL Councils).

  • 1998

    Workforce Investment Act passed.
  • President Bill Clinton after signing the Workforce Investment Act


The Olmstead decision: the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W. that the “integration mandate” of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public agencies to provide services “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.”

  • 2004

    First Disability Pride Parade held in Chicago and around the country.
  • Disability Pride Parade in Chicago, Illinois


American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA): The Act emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis.

  • 2009

    President Obama marks the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court Olmstead decision by designating 2009 as “The Year of Community Living” dedicated to identifying ways to improve access to housing, community supports and independent living arrangements for older people and people with disabilities.

  • President Obama and Lois Curtis during the year of Community Living


Department of Justice’s revised regulations for Titles II and III of the ADA known as 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).


New Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rules are enacted.


The Stephen Beck, Jr. Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (the ABLE Act)

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)

  • 2015

    The ABLE Act is passed. The ABLE Act is federal legislation that aims to ease financial strains faced by individuals with disabilities by making tax-free savings accounts available to cover qualified expenses such as education, housing, and transportation.
  • Sara Wolff advocates for the ABLE Act