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April 26, 2015 / 7 Iyar, 5775
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Jews and the First Wave of the American Disability Inclusion Movement: The League of the Physically Handicapped, 1935-1939


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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More Articles from Deborah Berman

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.

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