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INDEPENDENT LENS: Lives Worth Living

ADAPT protesters in Las Vegas, 1993.
Courtesy of Tim Onlin
ADAPT protesters in Las Vegas, 1993.

Airs Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

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.

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Watch Like an Emancipation Proclamation for the Disabled on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Fred Fay’s life proves that one man can change the world, even though he has to lie flat on his back just to stay alive. “Lives Worth Living” looks at Fay’s struggle to survive after a spinal cord injury and the small group of dedicated activists who formed the disability rights movement to drive the nation toward equal rights.
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Watch An Invigorating Act of Civil Disobedience on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Mary Jane Owen, who was present at the 1977 occupation of the San Francisco Federal Building to protest official attempts to ingnore disability rights, describes how her involvement in this act of civil disobedience was "invigorating" and an unprecedented political action for the disabled community.
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Watch Razing the Shameful Wall of Exclusion on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.