Celebrating Kitty Cone: 1944 – 2015

Kitty seated in wheelchair on lawn with child in her lap

Kitty and Jorge photo: Ken Stein

Long-time DREDF champion, staffer, and former member of the board of directors, Kitty Cone died at her home in Berkeley, California on Saturday, March 21, 2015. She was 70. Kitty was closely aligned with DREDF for nearly two decades, endorsing and supporting our use of law and policy as instruments for long-term reform. After she retired, she continued actively supporting DREDF, always eager and willing to meet with prospective donors, speak at a law school class, offer a pithy and rigorous analysis on the political topic of the day, and give generously of her time to mentor young advocates. Passionate, funny, outspoken, brilliant, a fierce competitor at pinochle and bridge, Kitty leaves a powerful disability and human rights legacy.

Her life spanned the period in the US before the legal concept of disability civil rights existed, indeed before people with disabilities understood that the experience of disability is substantially shaped by external prejudice, discrimination, and physical and social barriers rather than solely by the disability, itself. She was an early leader in the struggle for federal disability rights legislation and played a pivotal role in shaping the arc of the modern disability rights movement.

A long-time advocate for race and gender equality, Kitty began working tirelessly for disability rights in the 1970’s. She is widely recognized as a key leader of the 26-day occupation of the San Francisco federal building in 1977 that spurred then US Health Education and Welfare Secretary, Joseph Califano to sign regulations implementing Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act—the first US disability civil rights law. A consummate political organizer, Kitty helped forge the coalitions and build the broad community support needed to sustain the demonstrators in San Francisco when advocates occupying other federal offices around the country were evicted. 504 defined the meaning of civil rights for people with disabilities and laid the foundation for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the retrospective documentary, “The Power of 504,” Kitty says:

“The signing of the regulations signified the public birth of the disability rights movement. It ushered in an era of disability activism, empowerment, and legislative victories based on the legal concepts of non-discrimination and integration embodied in Section 504.”

A student activist at the University of Illinois in the1960’s, Kitty worked against apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in housing in the university town itself, Champaign-Urbana. In the late 1960’s, she traveled extensively in Latin America, witnessing deep structural poverty for the first time and meeting with Peruvian political figure and revolutionary, Hugo Blanco on El Fronton Island where he was imprisoned. These experiences crystallized her life-long commitment to socialism as a means to social, economic and political justice. Later, she honed her political skills through debate, coalition building, and community organizing, going on to organize mass demonstrations in Chicago and New York against the US war in Vietnam and forming strong views on women’s rights.

Soon after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s, she applied her prodigious political organizing skills at the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, advocating for personal assistance services, curb ramps and accessible public transportation.

In the early 1980’s, Kitty began pursing adoption, but encountered strong opposition from the gatekeeping agencies in the US that deemed her an unfit candidate because she was single and a disabled wheelchair user. Undeterred, she moved to Mexico and after a two-year period, adopted her son, Jorge. When the adoption had been finalized, she returned to the Bay Area and continued advocating for independent living programs, personal assistance services, transportation, and for disability rights with Berkeley CIL, the World Institute on Disability, and later with DREDF.

Cherished, loved, and respected by an astonishingly large and diverse community of friends, Kitty welcomed them, along with her devoted family, into her home until the day she died.

To learn more about Kitty’s exceptional life, go to her extensive oral history available online at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. To read a lovely tribute by Lainey Feingold, longtime friend and disability rights attorney, read her column in BeyondChron. To listen to Kitty’s victory speech after Secretary Califano signed the 504 regulations, go to the audio file. A transcript of the audio file is also provided.

Donations can be made in Kitty’s honor to DREDF, 3075 Adeline St., Suite 210, Berkeley CA, 94703.