The self-advocacy movement is part of the disability rights movement, and the power of the movement rests in the fact that it is largely informed by the personal experiences of people with physical or intellectual disabilities. It became more visible in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, but arguably, it goes widely unrecognized, though the goals and initiatives of the people involved in the movement are crucial to civil rights. People from all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and cultures experience disabilities, but not all of them receive equal treatment. People with intellectual disabilities, much like people of old age, are disadvantaged in society as a group. They tend to be devalued as persons, as abled people have historically viewed them as less "productive" members of society. Thus, historically, they have been denied basic civil rights, such as the right to procreate and attend college. Practitioners and government officials, in determining policies and procedures for caring for these people, must distinguish between a rights-based approach and a needs-based approach.
Historically, while the goal to meet the basic needs of people with disabilities (PWDs) has been the norm, practices that support this norm often deny them civil rights that all humans are entitled to. Human rights give people power—the power to dictate the course of their lives and create life experiences that make them feel valuable. A person-centered approach to providing for PWDs affords them more than just dignity—it affords them the opportunity to make choices that affect them. It promotes an understanding of PWDs as human beings who can self-advocate, when the normative response to these people treats them much the same any other group that was forced to fight for their civil rights in the past. During the era of slavery, African Americans were viewed as property, in policy and in practice, for instance. Morality dictated their treatment in individual circumstances, but as a group, they were subjugated and oppressed. A person-centered approach to disabilities recognizes that human rights extend beyond basic dignities and that people with disabilities are entitled to receive them. In effect, it addresses PWDs' individual preferences and desires and bucks the historical norm of stripping them of their individuality and addressing them as group defined by "weaknesses."