Remembrance of Things Past

by Michael Williams

Reprinted from The Independent, Summer 1977

I came to sit in at San Francisco’s old Federal Building two days late. I had been at the rally that Tuesday and listened to the speeches. I drifted away when my tolerance for hunger soared above my tolerance for oratory.

I turned on the news that evening and was amazed to learn that we had taken over the offices of Region Nine of H.E.W. I wanted to get into the building and see form myself what was going on.

I soon discovered this would be no easy task. Anyone in a wheelchair who appeared at the door of 50 Fulton Street (the Federal Building) immediately was suspected of being a radical activist and was told to get lost.

Well, I don’t like anyone telling me to get lost, especially when it has something to do with my disability. I had to get into the building one way or the other. A ruse had to be devised. I simply picked up a phone and made an appointment with a government architect to discuss barriers.

It worked. The gentlemen guarding the door called and satisfied themselves that I indeed had an appointment. I was waved through the door and was accompanied to the appropriate office by two members of the Federal Protection Agency. I went up the newly-built ramp made with a bright green substance that looked like Astroturf with pimples. I glanced up and noticed the plaque on the wall. This building was constructed during the administration of F.D.R. President Roosevelt was never too good on the issue of accessibility. He never came out of the closet.

My two friends hugged close to the sides of my wheelchair, as if they were afraid I would go berserk. I kept thinking of those death row prison pictures where Lefty is dragged down the hall to the chair by two mean looking guys.

“Who are these folks protecting,” I thought, “us, the building, the people in H.E.W.?”

We were at the door of the appointed office; my two friends ushered me in with flourish. They quickly departed and I found myself alone in a roomful of drafting easels.

Out from one of the office cubbyholes popped an aging bureaucrat. He looked like he’d spent one too many years pushing pencils in the same agency. He came forward and shook my hand quickly to let me know we wouldn’t spend too much time discussing architectural barriers.

And with this brief introduction, he launches into an angry anti-government monologue. At first I was amazed to hear such words coming out of an individual that is supposed to be sheeplike. But in the days to come I would hear many other governmental employees express similar feelings.

When the man was finished, he gave me some pamphlets so I’d look official. I thanked him for his time and help. He wished me good luck and told me to keep a sharp eye out for my friends, the guards.

I carefully made my way back down the hall. I tried to look relaxed, but I was as nervous as hell. I made a quick right turn at the mezzanine and zipped into a waiting elevator. All the while I expected an official sounding voice to boom out and send me scurrying back into the street.

But I soon found myself up on the fourth floor where the action was. I made a quick tour of the place to find how it is organized. And it was organized.

This was the key to our victory. We were able to organize into one cohesive group; we broke down into committees to make our work more efficient; and above all, we were able to use the press to our advantage.

How could the press be against us? This is the point: for the first time the press saw Disabled as people, not objects of sympathy.

As the demonstration went on, the reporting got better and more detailed. Not only was there the basic story of the demonstration and Section 504, but the press did stories on various disabled activities in the Bay Area.

And it got through. We got a strong set of 504 regulations; but we also got a new public awareness of the problems of disability.

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

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