Skip to content

Disability History Exhibit

Panels are available as both PDF images and Accessible HTML

PDF Images - Panel Content - Timeline

Panel 1

3500 BC

The Rig-Veda, an ancient sacred poem of India, is said to be the first written record of prosthesis.

1552 BC

An obscure document called the Therapeutic Papyrus of Thebes marks the first recorded reference to mental retardation.

470 – 399 BC

The philosopher Socrates challenges Athenian citizens to consider what constitutes a good quality of life.

355 BC

Aristotle said those "born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason."

335 – 280 BC

The physician Herophilus founds one of the earliest medical schools in Alexandria. He finds connections between brain defects and disability.

6 BC – 30 AD

The life of Jesus Christ.

130 – 200 AD

The Greek physician and scholar Galen recognizes the brain as the central organ of the nervous system and the seat of intellect.

476 – 1000 A.D.

The Dark Ages: a time marked by indifference, neglect, and fear.

Panel 2

787 A.D.

Datheus, archbishop of Milan, founds the first asylum for abandoned infants. "As soon as the child is exposed at the door of the church, it will be received in the hospital and confided to the care of those who will be paid to look after them."


The physician Avicenna proposes treatments for meningitis and hydrocephalus and defines levels of intellectual functioning.


St. Mary of Bethlehem (more well known as "Bedlam") begins to receive mental patients in England.


Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) is the first physician to recognize the ability of the Deaf to reason.


Leonardo da Vinci, Italian artistic and scientific genius, studies anatomy and the functions of the brain.


Paracelsus distinguishes between mental illness and mental retardation.


Bedlam is declared a hospital exclusively for the insane.


Felix Platter studies "mental alienation," a precursor to psychiatry that includes both mental retardation and mental illness.


Poor Laws are enacted in Elizabethan England.

Panel 3


The first book on teaching sign language to Deaf people, containing a manual alphabet, is published by Juan Pablo DeBonet.


1st Hospital in the American colonies for the treatment of people with mental illness opens in Pennsylvania in a private home. The patients are moved to the Pine Street Hospital in Philadelphia after it opens in 1756.


Franz Joseph Gall, a highly respected brain anatomist, identifies 39 distinct areas of the brain associated with intellectual functions.


A system of marine hospitals is established to care for sailors who are sick or have become disabled.


The first free school for the Deaf opens in Paris by Abbe Charles de L'Epee.


Samuel Heinicke establishes the first oral school for the deaf in the world in Germany.


Thomas Braidwood opens the first school for the Deaf in England.


The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds opens in Williamsburg, VA. Its first patient is Zachariah Mallory of Hanover County, VA.

Panel 4


US Declaration of Independence.


Arnoldi, a German pastor, believes education of the deaf should begin as early as four years.


Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol divides mental retardation into two levels: idiocy and imbecility.


Valentine Hauy develops embossed print and claims that blind persons can be taught.


Abba Silvestri opens the first School for the Deaf in Italy.


U.S. Constitution


In Paris, Pinel Unshackles people with mental illnesses.


The US Bill of Rights is adopted.


The French Revolution recognizes the innate dignity and worth of all human beings.


Maryland Hospital in Baltimore City is establishes as "a hospital for the relief of indigent sick persons, and for the reception and care of lunatics."


A system of marine hospitals is established to care for sailors who are sick or have become disabled.

Panel 5


"Victor, the Wild Child," is discovered in the woods of Averyron, France.


Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard publishes De l'Education d'un Homme Sauvage which describes his efforts to educate Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron.


Rush's Medical Inquiries and Observations is the first modern attempt to explain mental disorders.


Louis Braille is born at Coupvray, near Paris. At three years of age an accident deprives him of his sight, and in 1819 he is sent to the Paris Blind School which was originated by Valentin Hauy.


Thomas H. Gallaudet departs for Europe to seek methods to teach the Deaf.


Laurent Clerc, a Deaf French man, returns to America with Thomas H. Gallaudet.


Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the first permanent school for the deaf in America, opens in Hartford on April 15.


American School for the Deaf adds vocational training to curriculum.


The Connecticut Retreat for the Insane (later named the Hartford Retreat and now named the Institute for Living) admits its first patients.


Louis Braille learns of a military method of communicating at night through the use of 12 raised dots on paper. In 1829 he simplifies the code to a 6-dot system for use by the blind. Samuel Gridley Howe opens the New England Asylum for the Blind (later named the Perkins School for the Blind) in Boston.

Panel 6


Panic of 1837 - Over 600 banks fail by the end of the year


The Ohio Lunatic Asylum in Columbus admits it's first patients from the Commercial Hospital and Lunatic Asylum of Cincinnati.


Edward Seguin is appointed head teacher of a class of idiot children at the Salpetriere in Paris, France. At this time he starts a private school in his home.


Dorothea Dix advocates to place persons with mental illness in hospitals for treatment.


A school for idiots opens in the Bicetre with Edward Seguin as a teacher.


P.T. Barnum opens the American Museum in New York and exhibits "Freaks."


Edward Seguin is fired from Bicetre, accused of "abominable" practices.


E. F. Backus in New York introduces the 1st legislation to provide for separate treatment for the feeble-minded.


Thomas S. Kirkbride publishes On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. Samuel Gridley Howe admits first idiot pupil to his school in South Boston.


Dorothea Dix appeals to the 30th Congress for federal funding of state facilities for persons with mental illness, mental retardation, and epilepsy. Hervey B. Wilbur opens a private school for idiots in Barre, Massachusetts.

Panel 7


Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet dies on September 10.


A school for "feebleminded youth" opens in Germantown, Pennsylvania.


A school for "feeble-minded youth" opens in Albany, New York.


A school for "feeble- Minded youth" opens in Columbus, Ohio.


Isaac Kerlin publishes The Mind Unveiled; or, A Brief History of Twenty-two Imbecile Children.


Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.


The Braille system is introduced to America and is taught with some success at the St. Louis School for the Blind.


Facility for the feebleminded opens in Kentucky.


The American Civil War (1861 - 1865) brings 30,000 amputations in the Union Army alone.


Panic of 1857 creates pressure for facilities to keep students in training schools. Population at the Pennsylvania Training School is 175.


New York adopts the "Willard Plan" which includes separate facilities for chronic cases in an attempt to reduce costs.

Panel 8


Edward Seguin publishes Idiocy. The same year, he publicly argues against large institutions. Samuel Gridley Howe speaks against building large institutions in keynote address in Batavia, New York. St. Peter State Hospital (later named the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center) admits its first mental patients in Minnesota.


A National Home for disabled Union soldiers is established.


Horatio Alger publishes Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York, suggesting that any boy in America can rise to success if he is intelligent.


14th Amendment is passed, providing equal protection of laws and due process.


Francis Galton publishes Hereditary Genius. Facility for the feeble-minded opens on Randall's Island in New York City.

1870 – 1952

Maria Montessori, influenced by Edward Seguin’s teaching methods, becomes a pioneer in teaching children with and without disabilities.


Population at the Pennsylvania Training School reaches 185.


Alexander G. Bell opens speech school for teachers of Deaf students in Boston.


The Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons is founded. Edward Seguin is the first president.

Panel 9


The National Association of the Deaf is founded.


Institution in Syracuse, NY opens farms colonies.


Francis Galton, a cousin to Charles Darwin, coins the term "eugenics."


Women admitted to the National Deaf-Mute College (now Gallaudet).


Maryland opens the Asylum and Training School for the Feeble-Minded. late 1880s Pennsylvania adds a "girls" cottage for 80 women of childbearing age.


Laura Bridgman, worldfamous blind student of the Perkins School, dies at age sixty of pneumonia.


Ellis Island opens.


National Deaf-Mute College becomes Gallaudet College


Charles Eliot Norton (Editor of the North American Review) advocates for the "painless destruction" of insane and deficient minds.


Martin Barr discusses benefits of desexualization at the Association for Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble- Minded Persons.

Panel 10


Boston starts special education classes. Teachers are sent to Massachusetts Institution for the Feeble-minded at Waltham and Elwyn Institute in Pennsylvania for training.


Sigmund Freud Publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.


Philadelphia, PA starts special education classes.


U.S. Congress bars immigration of epileptics.


Martin Barr publishes Mental Defectives.


Rome State Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots in New York opens a farm colony (The Brush Colony). Research Department at the Training School at Vineland, NJ is begun. Henry H. Goddard is hired to head the laboratory.


Indiana passes sterilization law.


Gunnar Dybwad, "Grandfather of the Self-Advocacy Movement," is born in Germany. Clifford Beers, a young businessman who had a mental breakdown and recovered, writes about it in A Mind That Found Itself.




l 11


New Jersey legislature authorizes statewide special education classes and mandates eugenic sterilization for certain categories of adult feeble-minded. Henry H. Goddard publishes The Kallikak Family. Davenport and Florence H. Danielson publish The Hill



Wisconsin Legislature authorizes sterilization to stop the breeding of mental defectives.


Operating expenditures at the Rome State Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots for fiscal year equals $228,893 ($12.81 per inmate per month).



man revises the Binet test and introduces the term Intelligence Quotient (IQ)


New York's sterilization law is found to be unconstitutional.


The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a non-profit organization recognized as Helen Keller's cause in the United States, is founded.

Panel 12


Congress passes the Immigration Restriction Act.


Arthur H. Estabrook and Ivan E. McDougle publish Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe.


Buck v. Bell – Supreme Court Case that permits sterilizations.


Harvey M. Watkin's questionnaire of 317 members of the American Association on Mental Deficiency finds that 80% favor sterilizations


27 states have enacted sterilization laws.


Germany enacts the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, permiting forced sterilizations for people with perceived genetic disabilities such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, manic depression, deafness, congenital feeblemindedness, Huntingtons' chorea, and blindness.


Third Reich begins sterilization of Germans.

Panel 13


The League for the Physically Handicapped forms to protest discrimination by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).


The Children's Benevolent League organizes (later known as the Washington Association for Retarded Children).


The March of Dimes begins treatment centers and fundraising for children and adults with polio.


Dr. Foster Kennedy, head of the Euthanasia Society of America, urges legalizing euthanasia for "born defectives who are doomed to remain defective." Hitler commences Aktion T4 "mercy killing" program of the sick and disabled.


U.S. Congress declares war with Japan and enters into World War II.


The population of Rome State School reaches 3,940, with 1,000 living in colonies.


World War II ends. Nazis had murdered 18-26 million people in death camps. Two thousand paraplegic soldiers survive the Second World War, compared with only 400 from World War I.

Panel 14


Parents discuss forming a national advocacy organization during an AAMD conference in St. Paul, MN.


The General Assembly of the United Nations adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Cerebral Palsy Association is founded.


The National Association for Retarded Children is formed. The Muscular Dystrophy Association is founded.


Ed Roberts, "father of the Independent Living movement," contracts polio.


Ed Roberts enrolls at the University of California, Berkeley.


Robert F. Kennedy attacks the Rome and Willowbrook State Schools in New York for appalling conditions. Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Bill becomes law, nullifying local laws and practices that prevent minorities from voting. Malcolm X is assassinated on February 21.


The Montgomery Bus Boycott.


Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas court ruling that "separate but equal" segregated schools violate the 14th amendment to the Constitution.


Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is founded to coordinate localized southern efforts to fight for civil rights.

Panel 15


The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is formed in Raleigh, NC by a group of Shaw University students. The Greensboro Sit-Ins begin in February, protesting segregated seating in a Woolworth’s diner. In two months the sit-in movement spreads to 54 cities in 9 states. Thurgood Marshall, national counsel for the NAACP, warns against accepting "token integration."


The march on Washington is the largest civil rights demonstration to date. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech entitled "I Have a Dream."


National Theatre of the Deaf is founded.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated on April 4.


Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children sues their state over poor conditions.


Ed Roberts and his peers at Cowell (UC Berkeley Health Center) form a group called the Rolling Quads. The Rolling Quads form the Disabled Students' Program on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Wyatt vs. Stickney court case in Alabama paves the way for deinstitutionalization across the country.


The United Nations adopts the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons.


Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania rules that exclusionary provisions in Pennsylvania's compulsory school attendance laws are unconstitutional. Geraldo Rivera's TV report on the Willowbrook State School and Letchworth Village is aired to millions of viewers.

Panel 16


The New York State Association for Retarded Citizens brings a class action suit against the state of New York, alleging severe violations at the Willowbrook State School and Hospital. Section 504 (Public Law 92-603) is added to the Rehabilitation Act, forbidding employment discrimination against people with developmental disabilities in federally funded programs.


The Center for Independent Living opens in Berkeley, California. England holds a national conference sponsored by the Spastics Society and organized by the Campaign for the Mentally Handicapped.


Canada holds its first self-advocacy conference.


Disabled Women's Coalition founded at UC Berkeley by Susan Sygall and Deborah Kaplan. Self-advocates in Oregon and Washington State organize the first U.S. self-advocacy conference. Wyatt v. Aderholt Federal Court rules that Alabama's eugenic sterilization law is unconstitutional.


The United Nations adopts a Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons.


Activists take over the San Francisco offices of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to protest Secretary Joseph Califano's refusal to sign meaningful regulations for Section 504. The action became the longest sit-in of a federal building to date. The historic demonstrations were successful and the 504 regulations were finally signed.

Panel 17


The federal government agrees to fund Independent Living Centers.


Self-advocates in Minneapolis picket their sheltered workshop for a union election.


Sears, Roebuck and Co. begins selling decoders for closed captioning for television.


Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act ensures that all polling places must be accessible.


Group homes become common in communities, providing a "least restrictive environment" for individuals with developmental disabilities.


19 states still have laws permitting the sterilization of persons with mental retardation. Mental Illness Bill of Rights Act expands coverage of Protection and Advocacy to cover mental illness.

Panel 18


The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) is founded in Berkeley, California.


George Murray becomes the first wheelchair athlete to be featured on the Wheaties cereal box.


The National Association of Psychiatric Survivors is founded.


Toward Independence is published by the National Council of the Handicapped (now National Council on Disability), recommending creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


The last residents move out of the Pennhurst Institution in Pennsylvania. Across the country people are leaving institutions and moving into their communities.



Marlee Matlin wins an Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.


The AXIS Dance Troupe is founded in Oakland, California.

Panel 19


"Deaf President Now" protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Dr. I. King Jordan, the first Deaf university president, is named.


ADAPT demonstrators take on inaccessible Greyhound buses.


Opening of a memorial museum for the victims of "euthanasia" and "Special Treatment" at a psychiatric hospital in Bernburg, Germany.


Mouth: The Voice of Disability Rights begins publication in Rochester, New York.


ADAPT "Wheels of Justice" action in Washington DC.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is signed by President Bush.


The Secretary of Transportation, Sam Skinner, finally issues regulations mandating lifts on buses.


Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered is formed during meeting in Estes Park, Colorado.


Wheels of Justice action by ADAPT in Washington, DC.


The Autism National Committee is founded.

Panel 20


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


Jerry's Orphans stages its first annual picket of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.


Federal "Home of your own" initiative begins. After seven years, Sharon Kowalski, a Woman disabled from an accident, is finally able to leave the "protective custody" of a nursing home and live at home with her partner Karen.


Wade Blank, one of the founders of ADAPT, dies trying to save his son from drowning.


The Remembering with Dignity project begins in St. Paul, Minnesota, with the goal of placing names on the numbered graves in Minnesota’s institutions and getting an apology from the state for years of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.


Death of Roland Johnson, a nationally recognized advocate for all people with disabilities.


The First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities is held in Beijing, China in conjunction with the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Panel 21


Sandra Jensen, a member of People First, is denied a heart-lung transplant by the Stanford University School of Medicine because she has Down syndrome. After pressure from disability rights activists, administrators there reverse their decision, and, in January 1996, Jensen becomes the first person with Down syndrome to receive a heart-lung transplant.


Not Dead Yet is formed by disabled advocates to oppose Jack Kevorkian and the proponents of assisted suicide for people with disabilities.


Sen. Robert Dole becomes the first person with a visible disability since Franklin Roosevelt to run for president of the United States. Unlike Roosevelt, he publicly acknowledges the extent of his disability.



Rodonna Freeman, selfadvocate in Minnesota, purchases a home of her own.


The Remembering with Dignity project secures the release of names of people buried anonymously in the Faribault Regional Treatment Center and begins to mark the gravesites with proper headstones. The state of Minnesota refuses to apologize.


Fourth International People First Conference held in Anchorage, Alaska.


The Supreme Court upholds "Most Integrated Setting" requirement in the Olmstead case.


Death of Irving Martin, a national self-advocacy leader from Minnesota.


10th anniversary of the ADA.


Fewer than 50,000 people living in public institutions

Panel 22


In Alabama v. Garrett the Supreme Court rules that state employees can no longer sue their employers for money damages under the ADA. This decision weakens federal civil rights protections.

As the Senate is divided 50-50, Senator Jim Jeffords leaves the Republican party and becomes an Independent. Members of SABE meet with Senator Jeffords this same day.

Hijacked airplanes on September 11th kill nearly 3,000 in New York City after the World Trade Centers towers collapsed. Another airplane crashes into the Pentagon in Washington, DC.


SABE, ADAPT, & NCIL sign a statement of solidarity.


The National Organization on Disability establishes the Emergency Preparedness Initiative to address the special needs of people with disabilities in emergency situations.

Paul Wellstone, U.S. Senator from Minnesota and strong supporter of disability rights, dies tragically in a plane crash with his wife Sheila and several close friends.

Justin Dart, a prominent leader in the international disability rights movement, dies at age 71.


ADAPT members and allies march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC in support of MiCASSA.

Self-advocates demand language change.

By executive order, the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation changed its name to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities


SABE and Project Vote produce resources highlighting voting issues faced by people with developmental disabilities.


The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama hosts an exhibit on disability history, featuring the struggles and accomplishments of people with developmental disabilities.

SABE stirs debate when it protests the Alliance for Full Participation summit planned for September 2005, asserting that the voices of self-advocates are not being heard. After much discussion, SABE and other sponsoring organizations come together and host the conference. Over 2,500 people attend.

Terri Shiavo dies on March 31 after her feeding tube is removed.

Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf coast in late August, causing thousands of deaths and destruction across costal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Panel 23


West Virginia is the first state to require all students to study disability history.


Global financial crisis leads to fewer services available to people in need.

The United Nations adopts the Convention on the Rights of Persons


Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) amendment expands coverage to more people.

Barack Obama becomes the first African American president of the United States.


Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) issues a position paper calling for an end to subminimum wages.


The Affordable Care Act increases accessibility and affordability of health insurance.


Alabama becomes the 12th state to close its public institutions housing people with disabilities.


The U.S. Department of Education rules that all students must have equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activies, including sports.


Rhode Island agrees to landmark settlement regarding sheltered work, addressing the rights of people with disabilities to receive employment and daytime services in the broader community.

This panel was sponsored in part by People First of Alabama in honor of the 50th enmvwsey of the Civil Rights Movement.