Call to Action

All Exhibits

Disability Rights

The basic resource of a nation is its people. Its strength can be no greater than the health and vitality of its population. Preventable sickness, disability and physical or mental incapacity are matters of both individual and national concern.

John F. Kennedy
Special Message to the Congress on National Health Needs
February 27, 1962


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities. The ADA also establishes requirements for telecommunications relay services. Signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush, the ADA has been compared with another anti-discrimination law—the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, discrimination based on race, religion, sex, disability, national origin and other characteristics is illegal in the United States.

Three decades before ADA, President Kennedy recognized the need for an amendment to the Social Security Act. He suggested improvements to benefits—including benefits for the disabled—in February 1961. His argument was persuasive, and he succeeded in signing the amendments on June 30, 1961. At the signing, Kennedy called the changes “an additional step toward eliminating many of the hardships resulting from old age, disability or the death of the family wage-earner.”

Compensation for disabled veterans increased the following year, as Kennedy urged Congress to provide programs for rehabilitation and vocational training. A new law provided an average 9.4 percent increase in compensation for nearly 2 million veterans disabled in the service of their country—the first increase since 1957.

At the same time, Kennedy expressed a great deal of interest in mental health, particularly research into the prevention and treatment of mental retardation. He established a panel of experts, including leaders in the medical and health fields. The first meeting took place on October 18, 1961. The president also appointed a special consultant to the panel—his older sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who later founded the Special Olympics.