Arts and Entertainment

Libraries virtual exhibition highlights 100 years of national disability rights

A wheelchair sits by a ladder leading to an indoor pool, in this Penn State University Park photo from the 1990s. Credit: Physical Plant series, Greg Grieco photographs, 07488All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a new online exhibition, “Celebrating the ADA: The Legacy and Evolution of Disability Rights & Lived Experience at Penn State,” explores the first 100 years of national disability rights legislation and the movement’s impact on the Penn State community. 

The exhibition is now available at

This exhibition is the result of a February 2020 conversation between University Libraries and Student Disability Resources seeking to enhance cross-campus collaboration in building awareness and providing support to the Penn State community. Shortly after that meeting, in response to COVID-19 and the transition to a remote work environment, a physical exhibition to recognize the 30th Anniversary of the ADA became impossible. This virtual exhibition is curated by a team from Penn State University Libraries and features digitized archival collection materials, largely from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, highlighting the University community’s awareness and efforts towards accessibility.

In June 1920, then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Smith Fess Act” (also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act) which expanded vocational rehabilitation opportunities and services to include, in addition to World War I Veterans, all Americans with disabilities. In the 70 years following the Smith Fess Act, a multitude of legislative actions were adopted that focused on recognition of the civil and employment rights of those with disabilities.

The passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act in July 1990 criminalized discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The ADA is a civil-rights law intended to help ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as any other individual. The civil rights protections of the ADA for individuals with disabilities are similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion. Learn more about the ADA here.

This exhibition invites viewers to simultaneously reflect on the legacy of disenfranchisement and marginalization in the U.S. toward individuals based upon “ability” that encouraged attitudes and bias supportive of exclusion and denial of opportunities, with historical and present advocacy and activism to shift environments, cultures and climates to prioritize the needs and rights of individuals with any disability. The hope is that individuals and researchers can utilize these sources, thematically organized to reflect historical national context as "Origins of Advocacy" (1920-69), "Activism and Seeking Equality" (1970-89), "The First 30 Years of the ADA" (1990-99), "ADA in the 21st Century" (2000-10) and "ADA Now" (2011-20), to foster and sustain discourse on diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to individuals with different visible and invisible abilities.

Highlights of the exhibition include virtual representations of varied documents and works such as:

  • former Penn State President John W. Oswald’s correspondence and reports related to activism response and legislative compliance;
  • Office of Physical Plant and Office of Residence Life images, maps and records of assessment and mitigation of physical accessibility barriers on campus;
  • relevant Daily Collegian articles;
  • photographs from the United Steel Workers Association (USWA);
  • children’s drawings from the papers of Dale Harris (Department of Psychology, 1959-78);
  • records of Association for Barrier-free Living, Environment and Design (ABLED), a student organization focused on the needs of students with disabilities at Penn State; and
  • additional sources focused on other distinctive individuals, initiatives and resources.

Celebrating the ADA: The Legacy and Evolution of Disability Rights & Lived Experience at Penn State” is curated by Engagement and Equity Librarian Racine Amos, University Archivist Angel Diaz, and Collection Services Specialist Robyn Dyke. For more information, questions, comments or suggestions about this exhibition, contact Amos at, Diaz at, or Dyke at


Last Updated April 15, 2021