A Moving Wave

by Tarri L. Tanaka

Reprinted from The Independent, Summer 1977

Does accepting my disability mean I must be complacent? Does being well-adjusted and rehabilitated suggest a life of shit-taking and no complaints? The nationwide demonstration beginning April 5th raised these and more topics for people with physical limitations.

Before the force of the wave hit me I was not unlike the Blacks a decade ago. I did not acknowledge the actual discrimination perhaps because I have not been disabled since birth. There were so many times when anger rose as elevators stuck and stairs with no ramps appeared, but I never connected it with prejudice. One day I woke up and had an inconvenience. I adopted further awkwardness as a way of life.

Being violently thrashed by the pull of the undertow I was sucked into the sea of a movement. I soon became aware of exactly what discrimination was. Appalling facts loomed before me- the deaf being denied proper medical care and eight million children being denied education just because schools were inaccessible. Exclusion from the participation in, or being refused the benefits of, a program receiving federal aid is a violation of civil rights. I have experienced this so often. These rights are so basic. It’s a disgrace to ask for something the United States has fought for over 200 years to give to others.

This repressed rage soon surfaced the further I floated to the crest of the crusade. Accustomed to the habitual problems at my East Bay BART Station, I did not realize the true implications of the proposed ordinances; however, it didn’t take long. I left the train in a S.F. terminal where there were no signs directing the disabled. After going the wrong way, for about a block, I took another bearing to discover a passageway into a tunnel which was not marked either. Teetering on a platform between the electric third rail and the elevator, I found my escape route opened and closed too fast to wheel in.

Reaching the station level, I attacked the attendant with, “You’re going to have a lot of traffic today. By all means, put a sign down there!”

Passing the bullpucky he stated “I’ve told them and they refuse to put one up.”

“I have some paper. Could I go down and make some?”

“Oh, I’ll do it,” he said obviously to get me off his back. Later, I thought of how written directions would not help the blind at all, and what about the deaf communicating on those white telephones. Everybody knows that they aren’t in wheelchairs also. Right?

After traveling another block to the street elevator, the doors bashed my hands against my chair. By this time I was more than ready for a demonstration on human rights. BART had not excluded me, but they made sure it was a pain to patronize them and in that way they were ostracizing me.

Making it to the outside world, I was swept into a preview of the Old Federal Building. On the Health, Education, and Welfare Floor we were given a tour of the quarter mile raceway of offices. At several business and conference rooms (our future homes), we wheeled in to ascertain their capacity. Our minds clicked as we gathered information on accessibility and possible questions to fire at our “public servants.” At one point Judy Heuman, one of the leaders of the demonstration, was led to the one women’s wheelchair bathroom. It was easy to see that our tour guide was very proud of the fact that he had an accommodating lavatory. Combined with his ear-wide grin he opened the two doors for Judy to inspect. She buzzed in and out with the smuggest smile I have ever witnessed.

Later that day I understood what she meant as I pushed on the heavy doors and maneuvered my chair through the narrow opening. Feeling that this was exercise I did not need, I had the doors propped open.

Inside the building a special society existed. It was out of place to be able-bodied. There was so much positive energy brought about by the unity of the situation. With our resources we turned a chaotic beginning into an organized plan of attack.

After 6:00 p.m. the building was closed to the public and we were given the choice of leaving or staying and possibly being arrested. It became apparent that we had tremendous power in our bodies. The jails would only prove to be inaccessible. Such bad publicity would occur that we were positive they wouldn’t involve us. We could not be touched and for the sole reason that we were “handicapped”.

The warmth and love displayed was overwhelming. Every donation of blankets, pillows, food, medical supplies, and money ended with the words, “Hang in there.” With this type of support, I and others unexpectedly stayed. I had heard that a few crazy people were going to spend the night in the H.E.W. offices. Little did I realize that I would be one of the many who dwelled in the building.

After the doors were barred to further demonstrators it was expected the number would dwindle. Seventy-five spent the first night and for the next three evenings the population grew to 150. Several people hearing about us via the media called, offering their support by joining the sit-in. Laws had been laid down by authorities, but loopholes were discovered by our scrutinizing minds. Clergy, attendants, medical personnel and official business appointments were honored. Many crossed the lines by masquerading in this manner, but a large majority entered by route of some “simpatico” security guards.

One morning I had an encounter with an H.E.W. employee in the restroom. She wanted to know why there wasn’t any privacy (meaning that the front doors were open to the hallway). To my thinking it was still secluded, but I told here how difficult the entrance was to open and that some luxuries were easily dismissed when one had to relieve oneself.

“But people will always help you, so I don’t see any reason for you to be disrupting business in the H.E.W. Building. I have a niece who is not as smart as her twin sister and you don’t see her doing all this. She’s so sweet and just accepts her place. Why can’t you do the same?”

I said: “It’s very degrading to ask for help to go to the bathroom. I want to be able to do it myself and I should be given that right. It’s so basic.” Repeatedly I tried to explain the unnecessary humiliation involved but I was using peaceful weapons and my attempts to break this wall seemed futile. Controlling my Boston Strangler Hands, my limbs returned to their place as I wheeled out of those doors that she shut, permanently, behind me. With tears of frustration I joined the group singing “We Shall Overcome.” I then knew why I was there.

Last updated April 11, 1997 by Dorothy Dillon & Jean Nandi

← 504 Sit-in Home