Jenifer Barclay
Jenifer Barclay

The impact of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is visible in parking lots, bathrooms, and public buildings across the country. But for centuries before the ramps and signs were erected, disabled people had to find their own ways to navigate American society.

On the radio show “BackStory with the American History Guys,” a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Jennifer Barclay, assistant professor in critical culture, gender, and race studies, discussed the history of disability in America –from the “ugly laws” that barred the disabled from public spaces to the grassroots activism that set the stage for the passage of the ADA. Barclay and others explored how the inventor of the telephone tried to stamp out American sign language, and how enslaved people found ways to exploit white fears of physical disability.

How have people with disabilities shaped 21st-century America? And how have American attitudes towards disability changed?

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