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DISABILITY RIGHTS SIT-IN AT THE WPA [1935]

Eighty years ago, the pioneers of the disability rights movement in the United States protested against brazen discrimination in FDR's New Deal Program, which deemed people with disabilities “unemployable.” At the core of the New Deal was a federal jobs program through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that employed 8.5 million people, but federal and state regulations barred people with disabilities from access to these critical jobs. In May 1935, six young adults with disabilities in Manhattan presented themselves at the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB) headquarters near Madison Square, demanding equal access to WPA jobs. When the ERB director, Oswal Knaugh, refused to meet with them, the six activists began a sit-in that lasted for nine days. The group’s action drew support from people without disabilities and national media attention. The group’s demands included fifty WPA jobs to be immediately given to people with disabilities, followed by ten more jobs every week after that. The WPA refused the deal and arrested eleven protesters. At that point, protesters and allies formed the League of the Physically Handicapped, which continued to picket the WPA’s refusal to meet their demands. In the end, the League won the creation of 1,500 jobs for New Yorkers with disabilities through the program.