1930's were a time of great social unrest and increasing militancy
among what one historian has termed "the impatient armies of the poor"
(Folsom, 1991). On March 6, 1930 hundreds of thousands of the unemployed
marched through the streets America's largest cities. The Unemployment
Councils, a largely decentralized movement, came into existence in
the summer of 1930. In the summer of 1932, 20,000 unemployed veterans
marched on Washington, many with wives and children. Calling themselves
the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they camped in vacant government buildings
and in open fields. They came to claim their Congressionally mandated
bonus. The veterans conducted themselves in a peaceful and orderly
way. When they refused to leave tanks, tear gas and bayonets were
used against them. One hundred were killed. In March 1933 out of a
total US population of 132 million, 45 million people were living
in abject poverty.
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded in 1935 and
organized thousands of workers. Although there were a number of labor
leaders with disabilities and thousands of disabled workers there
was no disability rights movement as we know it today. Nonetheless,
times of social injustice often breed resistance, and resistance,
once loosed, has a way of spreading. And spread it did, to people
with disabilities. We have, unfortunately, few well documented examples
from this period of people with disabilities coming together to struggle
for their basic human rights. The examples we have are powerful and
deserve to be presented here, even if in certain cases the facts are
few or while well researched, awaiting publication.
"Workshops" and Strikes
I make a point of avoiding the term "sheltered" workshops as I believe
it demeans and belittles not only the work done in these settings
but also because it devalues the workers. Many of those employed in
these settings are paid less than minimum wage. One of America's first
workshops for the blind was established in 1840 in Massachusetts by
Samuel Gridley Howe (Koestler, 1976). Howe founded the Perkins Institution
and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind eight years earlier. His new
brainchild was a "separate work department" at the school. By the
1980s the number of people with disabilities working in these settings
numbered more than 650,000 (Pelka, 1997). Organizations of the blind
had attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain collective bargaining rights
in the workshops for a number of years. Although the employees of
the workshops were denied the right to unionize, strikes did occur.
A sit-down strike by blind employees occurred in a Pittsburgh workshop
in 1937. The local press seemed more impressed with the "oddity" of
the event than with the fact that a group of disabled workers were
angry enough to organize a militant rank and file job action in their
place of employment.
League of the Physically Handicapped
The League of the Physically Handicapped was formed in New York City
in May 1935. This almost forgotten disability rights group was rediscovered
and researched by historian Paul Longmore. Initially a group of six
people with disabilities, this seminal precursor of the disability
rights movement grew to a membership of several hundred. The league's
first action was a sit-in of the office of the Emergency Relief Bureau
in New York City. The six had requested a meeting with the director
of the ERB to protest the Bureau's unwillingness to refer people with
disabilities to the Works Progress Administration for employment.
The director refused to meet with the league and the six then started
their sit-in. The action attracted popular support and press attention.
part of a flyer put out by the League for the Physically Handicapped
announcing a protest (click on image to see text of flyer)
actions included picket lines and demonstrations and league members
spoke to labor unions and progressive organizations in an attempt
to educate these groups on disability issues. Like many groups struggling
for economic and social justice the League of the Physically Handicapped
was accused of being "reds". The group dissolved in the late 1930s.
More information on the league can be found in Pelka's, The ABC-CLIO
Companion to the Disability Rights Movement, 1997, pp. 190-191.