Content Written by Suri Kautz
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was signed in by President Nixon after being vetoed twice. Section 504 of this law states that those with disabilities should not be discriminated against by any program receiving federal funds (Carmel). This Act was pivotal in shifting the way that society viewed those with disabilities; it clarified that the discrimination that people with disabilities experienced was not their own fault, but rather a public issue (Cone). Under the Rehabilitation Act, basic public resources such as transportation, schools, housing, libraries, parks, courtrooms, equal employment opportunity, equal medical care and more were required to be accessible for people with disabilities (Carmel). Only with this act was discrimination against people with disabilities first legally acknowledged.
Before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, schools and other public institutions often refused to make their programs accessible to people with disabilities. Children with disabilities were often not allowed to attend their public schools, and in that way they were further segregated from their peers (Williams). Therefore, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a relief for the community of people with disabilities, as they believed that public spaces would finally be accessible to them. Yet, four years after the act was signed in, it had still not been implemented.
The main culprit for these delays was money, as the cost of making public buildings across the country accessible was massive. Yet, as public officials moved on in their lives, ignoring the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act, people with disabilities waited eagerly to finally gain access to federally funded programs. As time passed, they became restless, leading to four years of lobbying, writing letters to the government, and even begging politicians to make these changes.
In 1977 none of the public buildings, such as courts, libraries, and schools had undergone the legally required changes to become accessible. People with disabilities were tired of waiting for their rights to be met. On April 5th, protesters across the country began occupying federal offices.
Demonstrations took place in federal buildings in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and most notably, San Francisco. Led by Judy Huemann, who was only 29 at the time, and Kitty Cone, who was 33, more than one hundred disabled protesters and activists occupied the regional H.E.W. office, also known as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. While most of the peaceful protests lasted only for a day, as intended, the demonstration in San Francisco lasted for almost a month. This protest would become one of the longest occupations of a federal building in all of U.S. history (Carmel).
The morning of April 5th, the crowd, which consisted of many adults and teenagers with varying disabilities, along with their personal care aides and interpreters, easily marched past the guards of the H.E.W office (Shoot). The security guards and the government didn’t take these protests seriously, as they made no effort to stop the demonstrators. Judy Huemann even recalls officials giving them cookies and punch on the first day (Grim). Much of the public treated people with disabilities with the same type of condescension that these officials demonstrated. This further angered the protestors, and fueled their 26 day sit-in.
A protest of this magnitude was no easy feat. Many were not prepared to be living in the building for that long, and only had the clothes on their backs, basic medications, and enough food to last a few days. In order to survive they had to be resourceful. They made a makeshift refrigerator out of an air conditioner; they used pay phones to communicate with loved ones and the news, and they also held daily meetings where they discussed subjects ranging from media strategy to how to manage the lack of resources. Inside, they spent their time helping those who needed assistance, playing cards, celebrating Passover and Easter, worrying about food and other necessities, and communicating with activists on the outside to help to set up more rallies. Many endured long days of discomfort, having to sleep in their wheelchairs, and experiencing pain (Shoot). Yet, the discomforts meant nothing to them in comparison to the importance of the enactment of 504.
Eventually the federal government realized that the protesters were not going to leave, so they cut the building’s phone line and water supply. This didn’t stop the protestors, in fact, it only strengthened them, as they received mattresses, food, portable showers, cooked meals, and other resources from the Salvation Army, the Black Panthers, the Gray Panthers, Glide Memorial Church, Delancey Street (Shoot), and the city’s mayor, George Mascone (Carmel).
After a few weeks of enduring anxiety and pain without the government showing any signs of implementing section 504, two dozen demonstrators, including Ms. Huemann and Ms. Cone, flew to Washington to put more pressure on the government to take action. Once they arrived, they attended a special hearing with members of congress, where some officials suggested creating “separate but equal” programs. Ms. Huemann confidently said, “We want the law enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation.” She then famously addressed Eugene Eidenberg, who was sent by H.E.W. to hear the group’s testimony; “I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I do not think you know what we are talking about” (Carmel).
On April 28, 1977, due to the strength and determination of the disability community, the 504 Act was implemented. Within months of the enforcing the 504 Act, changes could be observed; universities built ramps, federal buildings added ramps and wider restroom stalls, public schools could no longer prohibit children with disabilities from attending, and much more. The implementation of this act was the foundation for the passing of other acts, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990 (Shoot).
The ADA law expanded upon the Rehabilitation Act – all spaces, federally funded and private, had to be accessible. The law also stated that people with disabilities could not be denied access to education, jobs, public spaces, and transportation. Although there have been many gains in the disability rights movement since the 504 sit-in, it is important to note that there is still a long way to go. Many believe that the ADA has fallen short, as it is still incredibly hard for people with disabilities to obtain jobs, and many schools fail to provide proper support to pupils with disabilities (Shapiro). Additionally, despite laws that attempt to minimize discrimination on the basis of disability, many people remain uneducated about disabilities and hold the beliefs that people with disabilities are less capable or even less human. This often results in people ignoring, avoiding, belittling, being afraid of, or pitying those with disabilities.
Clearly, there is still progress to be made to ensure the equal rights of people with disabilities, but to move forward, it is necessary to look back on the powerful history of disability activism. Laws and protests such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the 504 sit-in, and the ADA reflect the strength, determination, and unity of the disability community (Meldon). A community that is often ignored, a community that had to endure 26 days in a federal building with little resources in order to finally be recognized. Kitty Cone explained that these sit-ins were “the public birth of the disability rights movement” (Grim).
Carmel, Julia. "Before the A.D.A., There Was Section 504." The New York Times, 22 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/us/504-sit-in-disability-rights.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.
Cone, Kitty. "Short History of the 504 Sit in." Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, 23 Mar. 2022, dredf.org/504-sit-in-20th-anniversary/short-history-of-the-504-sit-in/. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.
Grim, Andrew. "Sitting-in for disability rights: The Section 504 protests of the 1970s." National Museum of American History, 8 July 2015, americanhistory.si.edu/blog/sitting-disability-rights-section-504-protests-1970s. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.
Meldon, Perri. "Disability History: The Disability Rights Movement (U.S. National Park Service)." National Parks Service, www.nps.gov/articles/disabilityhistoryrightsmovement.htm. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.
Shapiro, Joseph, and Emma Bowman. "One Laid Groundwork For The ADA; The Other Grew Up Under Its Promises." NPR, 26 July 2020, www.npr.org/2020/07/26/895480926/the-americans-with-disabilities-act-was-signed-into-law-30-years-ago. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.
Shoot, Britta. "The 1977 Disability Rights Protest That Broke Records and Changed Laws." Atlas Obscura, 9 Nov. 2017, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/504-sit-in-san-francisco-1977-disability-rights-advocacy. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.
Williams, Bob. "The Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Independence Bound." ACL Administration for Community Living, 26 Sept. 2016, acl.gov/news-and-events/acl-blog/rehabilitation-act-1973-independence-bound. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.