Jews and the First Wave of the American Disability Inclusion Movement: The League of the Physically Handicapped, 1935-1939
Latest update: September 15th, 2013
The American Inclusion Movement’s First Wave, which was focused solely on Inclusion in the workforce, has been almost entirely forgotten. It occurred in the 1930’s, decades before the 1960’s zeitgeist brought about broader and more famous changes in pro-disability policy, architectural barriers, and independent living. The First Wave was led by a mostly Jewish cohort of young, militant, disabled activists from Brooklyn and the Lower East Side who called themselves the League of the Physically Handicapped (LPH). The LPH was the very first mobility impaired disability-rights group in recorded history. Its leader, Sylvia Bassoff, is the forgotten mother of what would become the wider Disability Inclusion Movement in the United States.
Sylvia Bassoff was one of the victims of the 1916 polio outbreak. She was stricken at sixteen months old and was partially paralyzed from the neck down. Her parents, Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, provided a disability-accepting Yiddish/English-speaking household where she and her three siblings were saturated in a rich Jewish cultural and political atmosphere. That setting most certainly served at the foundation for her future as one of the most successful, if obscure, Jewish political agitators in American history. Bassoff grew up with the sense that anyone—whether a disadvantaged Jewish immigrant or a disabled person—has a right to live and work unimpeded by prejudice or policy.
When Bassoff turned eighteen, armed with self-confidence, ambition, and youthful energy, she struck out on her own and began to look for work. However, the reality of life as a disabled person in the 1930’s shattered her expectations that the world would be as accepting and as her upbringing had been. Not only was she job-searching in the middle of the worst economic depression in American history, but she was obviously disabled, relying heavily on a set of crutches. Even after attending the elite Drake Business School and finishing at the top of her secretarial class, she watched as less efficient but able-bodied classmates were hired instead of her.
Finally, at the age of nineteen, she had to take a position as an envelope stuffer in a mass-mailing fundraising department at a charity that hired only persons with disabilities. Bassoff and her officemates viewed the work as degrading and segregationist.
Franklin Roosevelt had recently been elected President and his successes in spite of his mobility impairment from polio made him a hero among the disabled population. In response to the grim realities of the Depression, Roosevelt revamped the moribund Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB)—today’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) – and fully implemented the WPA program. However, even though the President himself was mobility impaired, no disabled people were being hired by these Federal programs.
Young Sylvia Bassoff and colleagues viewed the WPA as the only way out of the charity sector of the workforce. After all, the WPA hired other marginalized populations, such as Jews, thanks to a standardized civil service test. However, these fair hiring practices seemed to stop with the disabled. Bassoff and thirty of her sheltered workshop colleagues, none of them with any experience in organizing or advocacy, nervously met in secret to discuss a way out of segregated charity work and into Inclusion in the workforce.
In May, 1935, the group finally acquired concrete evidence of how the disabled population was being excluded from government jobs. The WPA and ERB employment applications had a formalized discrimination system in which the page was stamped “PH” for “Physically Handicapped” upon the conclusion of a job interview. This code meant an immediate rejection of the candidate, regardless of qualifications or aptitude. Led by Bassoff, the group of young Jewish disability activists formalized their social action group. They dubbed themselves the League of the Physically Handicapped (LPH) and set out on a campaign to deal directly with the WPA policy-makers.
The LPH began their campaign to acquire WPA jobs by visiting the New York City Satellite office of the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB), where they staged what was probably the first civil-rights sit-in in history. They entrenched themselves in the ERB office and picketed for close to a week, marching on crutches and in wheelchairs at a time when the disabled were virtually invisible. In a chaotic New York City street scene, protesters chanted critical slogans aimed at the ERB Commissioner, who declared that the government owes nothing to the disabled but institutions and home relief. He then made the self-defeating decision to subject some of the non-violent disabled activists to arrests and rough treatment in front of crowds of able-bodied sympathizers and reporters, with predictably negative press fallout.
As a result of this week-long march, radical changes in the New York City ERB hiring policies were immediately implemented. Thirty-three core members of the LPH won jobs via the ERB. Sylvia Bassoff was given a choice job as a typist, ironically at the very ERB office where she and her disabled colleagues had staged the initial sit-in.
Although pleased with their new mainstream jobs, the group did not forget the systematic federal work discrimination they had experienced. In 1936, only months after their New York City victory, the LPH set out to take their issue directly to President Roosevelt himself. Led by Sylvia Bassoff, then just twenty-one years of age, around a dozen core LPH members, most of them Jewish and all of them young and with obvious mobility disabilities, got into the back of an open flatbed truck and made the journey from New York City to the nation’s capital.
The group arrived in Washington, D.C. and, unannounced, entered the federal building that housed the WPA. They demanded to meet with the President to discuss the systematic exclusion of the disabled from WPA jobs. Their disheveled looks from hours of exposure to wind and weather, combined with their clunky crutches and other mobility paraphernalia, attracted more than a few stares in an era where the disabled were an utterly invisible part of American society. The group made it up to the WPA office and demanded to be seen, but were completely ignored. There were few chairs in the waiting room, so the group sat on the floor and refused to leave. Too exhausted and too mobility impaired to stand up and go down to the truck, the group unwittingly staged the first sit-in in a federal building. This episode, consequently, became the model for civil rights sit-ins nationwide.
The press got of wind of the LPH’s all-night sit-in and media attention was intense. The disabled activists, however, were neither self-satisfied nor indignant. The group of young twenty-something’s was terrified of losing their hard-won ERB jobs, being arrested, or, even worse, tried for treason. This was an era of Communist paranoia and violent Nativism in the U.S., directed in particular against Jews. As a result, the motives of this largely Jewish group of disabled dissenters were constantly being questioned. For example, a New York Times article on the LPH protest at the New York City ERB concluded with the LPH members repeatedly denying accusations that they were Communists and anti-American.
Twenty-four hours into the sit-in, a top advisor to Roosevelt agreed to meet with the core members of the LPH. Sylvia also received a letter from President Roosevelt encouraging her in her mission, praising her leadership skills, and expressing his commitment to resolve the problem. This was quite an accomplishment for a disabled twenty-one year old daughter of Jewish immigrants in the 1930’s. Over the course of the next year, the LPH was successful in pressuring Roosevelt’s advisors to the WPA to repeal the discriminatory policy and eliminate the “PH” stamp on every Federal job application.
While the LPH is responsible for opening up the federal work force to future generations of disabled Americans, the LPH activities in New York and Washington, D.C. are almost entirely unknown. It was a short-lived movement because it quickly accomplished its one goal: disability Inclusion in civil service employment. During its approximately four years of activism, from about 1935-1939, its achievements were noteworthy indeed. Imbibing the 1930’s spirit of social agitation, a major part of which was the Jewish struggle against nativist sentiments, quotas, and segregation, the LPH refused to remain invisible. The organization broke the disability employment stereotype as being limited to the philanthropic world’s charity workshop settings and expanded it into the mainstream government sector by starting a trend in the hiring of the disabled in other branches of the federal government. Rather than accepting the disabled-as-charity recipient role that lay within the very core of the American collective psyche, the actions and accomplishments of the LPH laid the foundation for a fundamental change in the perceptions and practices of the government of the most powerful nation in the world toward those with disabilities.
About the Author: Deborah Berman, LCSW, is the Senior Social Worker at Yachad, National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
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