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By the 1970s, people with developmental disabilities were moving out of the large public institutions. But barriers to social integration still existed in the community. Perhaps the greatest barrier was the attitude of many people, including parents, who thought that individuals with developmental disabilities were not capable of living and growing in the community.

Inspired by the advocacy and civil rights groups of the 1960s, and formed partly in reaction to professional and parental attitudes, self-advocacy groups formed their own organizations at the local, state, and national levels.

In 1995, over 600 self-advocacy organizations existed in the United States, including the national organization Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered. Self-advocacy groups have also sprung up in a dozen other nations.


Many self-advocacy organizations adopted a structure similar to parent and professional organizations, an approach that was viewed as a measure of success.

Self-advocates planned their own conferences; named their organization (People First, Speaking for Ourselves, Project II), and occasionally even joined professional organizations like AAMR and The Arc; ran their own meetings, held elections, formulated their own issues, and changed the language of the field.

Rosemary and Gunnar Dybwad
Video: Rosemary Dybwad recalls a march with self advocates who had been residents of a Massachusetts state institution, and Gunnar Dybwad adds an historical perspective to the origins of the movement.