Lives Worth Living

Independent Lens

People with disabilities are one of the largest minorities in the United States. But for most of American history, they occupied a sub-class of millions without access to everyday things most citizens take for granted: schools, apartment buildings, public transportation, and more. Some were forcibly sterilized under state laws. Others were committed to horrifying institutions where they were left and forgotten.

After World War II, however, things began to change, thanks to a small group of determined people with an unwavering determination to live their lives like anyone else, and to liberate all disabled Americans of the limitations their government refused to accommodate.

Lives Worth Living traces the development of consciousness of these pioneers who realized that in order to change the world they needed to work together. Through demonstrations and inside legislative battles, the disability rights community secured equal civil rights for all people with disabilities. Thanks to their efforts, tens of millions of people's lives have been changed.

This film is an oral history, told by the movement's mythical heroes themselves, and illustrated through the use of rare archival footage. The story features Fred Fay, who suffered a spinal cord injury at age 17 in 1961, and simply refused to be relegated to life's sidelines just because he couldn't walk. He fought tirelessly for decades for equal rights, access, and opportunity for the disabled, including advocating for programs allowing the disabled to live independently. (Fred died August 20, 2011; the film is dedicated to him.) Also featured is Ed Roberts, who founded the independent living movement in Berkeley and is also considered a father of the disability rights movement.

Echoing footage of Martin Luther King marching in Selma, we see protestors climb from wheelchairs and drag themselves courageously up courthouse steps; we watch as quadriplegic activists maneuver their chairs in front of public buses that are not equipped to accommodate them.

The film ends with the dramatic battle for the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in America's history. The thousands of individuals who came together to change attitudes and laws demonstrated the power of humanity, cooperation, and self-determination, and what can be accomplished against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


No Pity : People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement by Joseph P. Shapiro

People with disabilities forging the newest and last human rights movement of the century.

Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment by James I. Charlton

James Charlton has produced a ringing indictment of disability oppression, which, he says, is rooted in degradation, dependency, and powerlessness and is experienced in some form by five hundred million persons throughout the world who have physical, sensory, cognitive, or developmental disabilities.

Rights of Inclusion: Law and Identity in the Life Stories of Americans with Disabilities by David M. Engel and Frank W. Munger

Rights of Inclusion provides an innovative, accessible perspective on how civil rights legislation affects the lives of ordinary Americans. Based on eye-opening and deeply moving interviews with intended beneficiaries of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation by Doris Fleischer and Frieda Zames

Doris Fleischer and Frieda Zames expand their encyclopedic history of the struggle for disability rights in the United States, to include the past ten years of disability rights activism. The book includes a new chapter on the evolving impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the continuing struggle for cross-disability civil and human rights, and the changing perceptions of disability.

What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement by Fred Pelka

Fred Pelka presents the voices of disability rights activists who transformed how society views people with disabilities, and recounts how the various streams of the movement came together to push through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the most sweeping civil rights legislation since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Experience the triumphant tale of renowned Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man whose love of life and soaring vision shaped his will to achieve a life without boundaries. Paralyzed after a stroke except for the use of his left eye, Bauby eloquently shared his story with the world by blinking the words he could no longer speak.

When Billy Broke His Head... and Other Tales of Wonder (1995)

After journalist Billy Golfus becomes brain-injured he goes on the road in an irreverent and entertaining quest to explore the roots and progress of the disability rights movement.


A Guide to Disability Rights Laws

Rights and Laws guide from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Disability Rights Movement Timeline

Interactive Timeline of the Disability Rights Movement

Independent Lens

The official website for Lives Worth Living

Share your stories

Ever parked in a handicapped space even if you're not disabled? Have you experienced discrimination based on a disability? Share your stories.

U.S. Department of State

Conversations with America: Promoting Disability Rights