30 Years of ADA and the History of Accessibility at W&M

Posted on
July 21, 2020

By Jacob Hopkins, Archives & Collections Specialist, with special thanks to Jennie Davy, Ute Schechter, Sara Belmont, Dr. Regina B'tzalya Root, and Dr. Carla Costello for research and editorial assistance

Content warning: In celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re sharing some items from the university archives that document William & Mary’s history with accessibility. Some of these twentieth century materials employ language or ideas that are today considered outdated, offensive, or otherwise incorrect.

Digitized article, titled "Dr. Sinclair alters gym registration," from the September 19, 1945 issue of The Flat Hat. This quote is highlighted: "Students who need special placement because of physical disabilities should register for the course 145."
"Students who need special placement because of physical disabilities should register for the course 145," reads this Flat Hat article from 1945 (page 6). We are able to make scanned documents like The Flat Hat readable by assistive technologies using a technique called Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf), readable by screen readers using Adobe Reader, on the W&M Digital Archive.

July 26, 2020 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.[i] This landmark civil rights law protects Americans with disabilities from discrimination in employment, telecommunications, and public entities and accommodations, like schools and public transportation. The immediate response to the ADA came in the form of accommodations—modifications to preexisting facilities and services to meet the needs of a specific individual or group. But as a touchstone in a larger history of accessibility advocacy, the ADA also motivates a new design framework, in which spaces and programs are built with accessibility in mind from the beginning and more voices are included in the conversation.

The definition and use of “disability” can be broad, and often contested, as the word has different connotations in different communities. But advocates generally unite around common goals: accessibility and safety; equity in employment, education, and housing; and freedom from discrimination and abuse. While the ADA marked a significant step forward in the fight for equal opportunity for people with disabilities, the disability rights movement neither started nor ended with this law. The ADA is thanks to the bravery and perseverance of people with disabilities and their allies, including those at William & Mary, whose determination leads progress toward a world more inclusive and accessible for all.

At W&M, the conversation about accessibility began well before 1990. An article in the September 19, 1945 Flat Hat (pdf) lists class changes announced by the head of the Women’s Physical Education Department. The article notes, “Students who need special placement because of physical disabilities should register for course 145.”[ii] Consulting the 1945-1946 William & Mary course catalog (pdf), this class is listed as “Adapted Activities,” with no further description.[iii] Although early documentation of people with disabilities at W&M is often vague and subject to outdated ideas, footnotes like this scatter the university archives and confirm that people with disabilities have long learned, worked, and lived at W&M. 

Digitized excerpt of the 1945-1946 William & Mary course catalog, featuring the entry for "Phys. Ed. 145, 146," called "Adapted Activities."
The 1945-1946 William & Mary course catalog lists "Adapted Activities" as a Women's Physical Education class that can be taken with approval of the College Physician (page 146). Access the entire digitized catalog (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.

This Flat Hat article reveals a glimpse of the university’s early efforts to make accommodations for accessibility. This initial approach to accessibility was inevitably piecemeal and only as requested—yet indicative of a growing conversation. Several other Flat Hat articles from the late-1940s make mention of accommodations for veterans with disabilities, including sidewalk curb cuts. This centering of disability issues was in large part thanks to the advocacy of veterans who placed pressure on governments to ensure equity and rehabilitation.

Thirty years later, a 1977 graduate thesis, “Architectural Barriers: Their Scope and Impact on the Williamsburg-James City County Area,” by Rae Ann Lindberg ‘77 and Ann Neal ‘77 examines the limitations of the built environment for people who rely on mobility aids. In addition to assessing campus buildings for their accessibility, Lindberg and Neal’s research includes three interviews with individuals living in the greater Williamsburg region who identify as having a physical disability. One interviewee, Buddy Fischer, an undergraduate student at W&M, uses a wheelchair and expresses intermittent success with navigating campus. Fischer feels that “the biggest problem on campus is the lack of curb cuts.” For instance, “there have been many times when he would have liked to have gone to the cafeteria for lunch but knew that he could not get in easily.” Fischer recommends a “single curb cut and a small ramp along one side of the main entrance” for the Commons Dining Hall.[iv]

Excerpt of page 36 from Lindberg and Neal's Architectural Barrier thesis, in which Buddy Fischer is interviewed. Fischer says he would use Commons Dining Hall more often if it were more accessible to people using wheelchairs.
An excerpt from Lindberg and Neal's thesis, featuring the perspective of Buddy Fischer, a student at W&M who uses a wheelchair. Access pages 35-40 of this thesis (pdf), which also include interviews with two disability advocates in Richmond and Yorktown, Virginia.

Lindberg and Neal’s thesis reaffirms that it often takes the outreach and advocacy of people with disabilities and their allies to name barriers and rally for change. Likewise, by juxtaposing their own criteria of accessibility with personal narratives, Lindberg and Neal stress the importance of trusting and respecting the lived experiences of people with disabilities and seeking their direction in making effective change.

Digitized introductory letter to William & Mary's Plan for Affirmative Action for the Handicapped (1977), written and signed by President Thomas A. Graves. Graves expresses the university's commitment to providing equal opportunities to students, employees, and applicants with disabilities.
President Thomas Graves's introductory letter to W&M's 1977 plan for equal opportunity for people with disabilities. Access the complete report (pdf). From the Office of Affirmative Action Records (UA 191).

Coincidentally, 1977 also marks the year W&M released its first official “Affirmative Action Plan for Handicapped” (pdf). From the Office of Affirmative Action Records (UA 191), this 20-page report arrived in response to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, an early federal effort to prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment for individuals with disabilities.[v] President Thomas A. Graves writes, “It is my intent, at this time, to reaffirm our policy of and commitment to equality opportunity” for people with disabilities. The plan explains new hiring policies intended to give equal opportunity to applicants with disabilities and appoints a compliance officer to oversee the implementation of changes and accommodations.[vi]

The university’s equal opportunity plan precedes a decade of advancements for the disability rights movement in Virginia. In 1985, the Virginia legislature passed the Virginians with Disabilities Act (VDA), which “set forth the policy of the Commonwealth and prohibited discrimination under state grants and programs and prohibited discrimination in employment.”[vii] Many provisions included in the VDA are similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, positioning the VDA as an earlier model for the federal standard.

And yet, Virginia has its own significant history of discrimination and harm against people with disabilities. In 1927, just 58 years before the VDA, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that compulsory sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.[viii] Carrie Buck, of Charlottesville, Virginia, was involuntarily sterilized while an inmate at Virginia State Colony, a state mental institution near Lynchburg, Virginia—not all that far from W&M. Most disturbing is the rationale for Buck’s institutionalization: pregnant as a result of rape, Buck, similarly to her mother, was “judged to be ‘feebleminded’ and promiscuous, primarily because each had given birth to a child without being married,” describes Disability Justice, an online resource for legal professionals, in their assessment of the Court's opinion. The 1927 Supreme Court decision denied the rights of people with disabilities by excluding them from critical constitutional protections, and perpetuated the injustices and trauma inflicted by the burgeoning eugenics movement.

Buck was the first of over 7,000 individuals sterilized under the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, which unjustly targeted people with disabilities, people of color, and others judged “inferior” or “undesirable” until the end of the 1970s. Virginia’s contradictory responses to physical and intellectual disabilities—and fatal selectivity in deciding who deserves inherent human rights—persisted throughout the creation and enactment of the VDA. Often conversations about accessibility in the twentieth century considered only the built environment and a limited scope of physical disabilities.

The Plans for the Removal of Barriers on Campus (Acc. 1989.36), from the Facilities Management Records (UA 29), illustrate large-scale efforts by the university to add ramps and elevators, flatten uneven terrain, designate accessible parking and restrooms, and make other modifications to the interior and exterior landscape of campus. The sheer size and volume of these plans—several large, intricately annotated sketches bound together—emphasizes the wide scope of this project. This marks a departure from just making accommodations one-by-one and as needed. The plans range from 1979 to 1987—renovation projects for the long-term.

Sketch (1979) in blue ink of planned renovations to the Commons Dining Hall to meet physical accessibility considerations.
Sketch (1979) of accessibility renovations planned for the entrance of Commons Dining Hall, including modifications to the brick walkway and building doors. From the Facilities Management Records (UA 191).

In a 1979 plan of Commons Dining Hall, the building’s entrance is redesigned with new brick paving, a sidewalk curb cut, a graduated incline, more open space, and larger doors.[ix] Just two years after Fischer offered his recommendations for the dining hall in Lindberg and Neal’s thesis, the Commons has been re-envisioned as a space more inclusive of everyone. While state and federal legislation required these changes, it was the lived experience, resiliency, and determination of people with disabilities and their advocates that sparked awareness and urgency.

Signed into law in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush, the Americans with Disability Act promises protections against discrimination similar to those ensured in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Where the Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and national origin, the ADA extends those protections to discrimination based on disability. Viewing the ADA as a stepping stone in a larger timeline of social progression—one that is in conversation with other civil rights laws past and future—reframes the disability rights movement as not just a cause for a specific group, but a movement towards a more accessible world for everyone. As a bipartisan effort, the ADA stresses the fact that disability can impact anyone at any time and that protections from discrimination benefit us all.

Following the enactment of the ADA, W&M continued to make accommodations to its built environment to best serve its whole community—students, faculty, staff, and visitors. An article from the September 20, 1991 Flat Hat (pdf), “Transfer to James Blair begun,” announces the Philosophy Department’s move to James Blair Hall from the Wren Building. Philosophy professor Larry Becker could not reach the upper floors of Wren in his wheelchair, so the department moved to James Blair so that all faculty could have equal access to the same space.[x]

Digitized article, "Transfer to James Blair begun" by Martha Slud, from the September 20, 1991 issue of The Flat Hat.
Excerpt from a 2001 Flat Hat article describing the Philosophy Department's move to James Blair Hall to accommodate a professor who could not use a wheelchair in the Wren Building (page 5). Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.

The Wren Building, the oldest college building still standing in the United States, presents a not uncommon obstacle in disability activism. For historic buildings—not originally designed with contemporary accessibility considerations in mind—there is often opposition to creating structural modifications in favor of preserving historic integrity. This contention between tradition and evolution asks us to reconsider, What does this space represent, and who can be here? While Professor Becker was denied the same space and resources accessible to others, the faculty in Philosophy nevertheless demonstrated unity and commitment in moving altogether, rather than simply isolating Becker in another building. This is an important recognition that inaccessibility is not just a one-time problem that will only ever affect one person. 

Digitized article, "College to make changes for students with disabilities" by Steve Mahoney, from the March 29, 1991 issue of The Flat Hat. Article features black and white photograph of ramp outside of a campus building.
A 1991 Flat Hat article features an image of a ramp on campus and describes some new university accessibility accommodations following the enactment of the ADA (page 3). Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.

Elsewhere on campus, a Committee on Disability Act Implementation formed to address accessibility from a larger and more inclusive vantage point. A Flat Hat article from March 29, 1991 (pdf) describes new considerations: “In addition to accommodations such as ramps outside buildings, the committee will also look into such as things as sound systems and the location and percentage of seats for students [with] disabilities.”[xi]

Since the ADA became law, W&M has endeavored to better serve faculty, staff, and students with all types of disabilities. For example, the Watson Assistive Technology Center, located in the Campus Center, offers adaptive keyboards, an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanner and speech synthesizer, and Braille translation software, among other technologies. And in support of faculty and staff, W&M’s full-time ADA Coordinator oversees the university’s compliance with the ADA and other federal and state laws related to disability discrimination. The ADA Coordinator offers educational resources and training to the campus community, as well as guidance on making effective accommodations.

In the thirty years since the ADA was signed into law, schools, William & Mary included, have sought a more intentional approach to design where spaces and services are more accessible from their creation, and the idea of who uses that space or service is expanded. In 2002, W&M announced plans to build a new undergraduate dormitory on Barksdale Field. As Sam Sadler, then Vice President for Student Affairs, noted in a 2002 Flat Hat interview (pdf), this dorm was envisioned as the “first building to be constructed [on campus] that would be fully accessible.”[xii] While this initial plan was not fully realized, today, Hardy and Lemon Halls stand on Barksdale Field as two of the most accessible on-campus dormitories.

Digitized article, "New dorm planned for Barksdale" by Camille Thompson, from the September 20, 2002 issue of The Flat Hat.
A 2002 Flat Hat article announces plans for the university's first "fully accessible" on-campus dormitory (page 1). Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.

As we reflect on the past thirty years of the Americans with Disabilities Act—and the even longer history of activism preceding it—now we ask: What might the next thirty years look like? Below are some contemporary resources on disability studies, some of which you can access now as e-books through the library’s catalog, including perspectives of people with disabilities. While accessibility often means creating one environment that works for as many people as possible, today we recognize and uplift the distinct individual narratives that comprise the whole.

Accessibility extends beyond physical space. Web accessibility considers the different ways in which different users may interact with websites and online tools. Here are some ways in which this blog post is accessible:

  • All images have a caption, as well as alternative text, or alt text, that describes the image. Screen readers automatically detect alt text; to access an image's alt text without a screen reader, right-click an image, select “Inspect” or “Inspect Element,” and the highlighted text should reveal the image's description.
  • Where applicable, Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, is applied to the archival documents and Flat Hat articles featured here or uploaded to the W&M Digital Archive.
  • Making links descriptive: Web links provide context with a meaningful text description instead of using ambiguous phrasing, like “Click here” or “Link.”


[i] “#ADA30,” Burton Blatt Institute, 2020, https://www.adaanniversary.org/home.

[ii] ”Dr. Sinclair Alters Gym Registration,” The Flat Hat, September 19, 1945, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the Digital Archive.

[iii] Bulletin of the College of William and Mary in Virginia--Catalogue Issue, 1945-1946, Special Collections Research Center. Access this digitized catalog (pdf) on the Digital Archive.

[iv] Rae Ann Lindberg and Ann Neal, “Architectural Barriers: Their Scope and Imapct on the Williamsburg-James City County Area,” (Williamsburg, Virginia: William & Mary, 1977), https://wm-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/9ogbnb/01COWM_WM_ALMA21554879510003196. Access pages 35-40 of this thesis (pdf), which also include interviews with people with disabilities and disability advocates in Virginia.

[v] “Employment Rights,” disAbility Law Center of Virginia, accessed July 19, 2020, https://www.dlcv.org/employment-rights.

[vi] “Affirmative Action Plan for the Handicapped, 1977,” Office of Affirmative Action Records, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. Explore the finding aid for this university archives collection on the SCRC collection guides database.

[vii] “Employment Rights,” disAbility Law Center of Virginia, accessed July 19, 2020, https://www.dlcv.org/employment-rights.

[viii] ”The Right to Self-Determination: Freedom from Involuntary Sterilization,” Disability Justice, accessed July 18, 2020, https://disabilityjustice.org/right-to-self-determination-freedom-from-involuntary-sterilization/.

[ix] ”Plans for the Removal of Barriers on Campus,” Facilities Management Records, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. Explore the finding aid for this university archives collection on the SCRC collection guides database.

[x] ”Transfer to James Blair begun,” The Flat Hat, September 20, 1991, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.

[xi] “College to make changes for students with disabilities,” The Flat Hat, September 20, 1991, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.

[xii] “New dorm planned for Barksdale” The Flat Hat, September 20, 2002, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. Access this digitized issue of The Flat Hat (pdf) on the W&M Digital Archive.