by Kitty Cone
In 1973 the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law. What section 504 says is “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Essentially it said no program receiving federal funds could discriminate against a person with a disability.
Section 504 was based on the language of previous civil rights laws that protected women and minorities. It recognized that society has historically treated people with disabilities as second-class citizens based on deeply held fears and stereotypes that go way back. Those attitudes had translated into pity and persecution, and later into policies that were based on paternalism.
People with disabilities, ourselves didn’t think the issues we faced in our daily lives were the product of prejudice and discrimination. Disability had been defined by the medical model of rehabilitation, charity and paternalism. If I thought about why I couldn’t attend a university that was inaccessible, I would have said it was because I couldn’t walk, my own personal problem. Before section 504, responsibility for the consequences of disability rested only on the shoulders of the person with a disability rather than being understood as a societal responsibility. Section 504 dramatically changed that societal and legal perception.
Only with section 504 was the role of discrimination finally legally acknowledged. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who had attempted in earlier years to pass civil rights legislation covering people with disabilities said about Section 504:
“the time has come to firmly establish the right of disabled Americans to dignity and self-respect as equal and contributing members of society and to end the virtual isolation of millions of children and adults.”
At that time, discrimination existed in education, employment, housing, transportation, access to public buildings and other facilities, access to equal medical care and in many other areas.
So, after the law was passed, in order for it to become effective, regulations had to be issued defining who was a disabled person, what did otherwise qualified mean, what constituted discrimination and nondiscrimination in the context of disability etc. Enforcement timelines had to be developed as well as an administrative enforcement mechanism. The regulations would provide a consistent, coherent interpretation of 504’s legal intent rather than leaving it up to any judge who heard a 504 case to interpret what the law meant.
There were contradictory rulings being handed down by courts. There was one case involving the right of a wheelchair user to use public buses in which the decision was that if a driver stopped and opened the doors that constituted nondiscrimination. Another case acknowledged that steps prevented a wheelchair user from boarding. These cases illustrated the need to define nondiscrimination, and also to define differences as well as similarities with race and gender discrimination.
The Department of Health Education welfare (HEW) was the lead agency, and their regulations would become the guidelines for all the other federal agencies — Department of Transportation, HUD etc.. It was crucial that the regulations be strong, because ultimately 504 would cover every area that received federal financial assistance.
Between 1973 and 1977 no regulations were issued. During that period strong regulations were drafted by attorneys in the Office for Civil Rights, sent to the Secretary of HEW with a recommendation to publish them in proposed form in the Federal Register for public comment.
By this time, opposition was developing on the part of covered entities — hospitals, universities, state and county governments and the regulations were not published. There was much delay; the disability community filed a lawsuit in federal court; the judge ruled that they must be issued but not when.
HEW sent the regulations to Congress which was totally unusual and Congress sent them back. HEW published an intent to propose regulations in the Federal Register.
There were a few actions taken by the disability community, and finally, HEW printed the proposed regs; there was extensive public comment, and a final compromise set of regs was waiting on HEW Secretary Califano’s desk when Carter administration came into office.
During this time, the American coalition of citizens with disabilities (ACCD) a national cross disability was formed. ACCD became deeply involved in leading the effort to get regulations out.
Once the Carter administration was an office, instead of signing the regulations, HEW set up a task force with no representation from the disability community to “study” them. It became clear, through delays and leaks from inside, that the regulations were being seriously weakened in coverage, enforcement, and the whole integration mandate.
There was a list of issues that included consortia: this would have meant that all the universities in a locale could form a consortium and thereby offer a full curriculum. Attending classes at a variety of universities would be absurd for a nondisabled person, but for a person with a disability it was absurd and patently unequal. The list of issues also included whether alcoholics and drug addicts were to be covered by the regulations. A case that occurred later concerned whether a coach who was a recovering alcoholic could be fired, although he had been sober for years. The list started out a short and grew to be about 20 issues.
Although most of the leadership of ACCD supported the Democrats, they understood that even as they were being told that the changes were cosmetic, the changes in were so profound that would put us in direct confrontation with the administration.
ACCD, realizing our civil rights protections were being gutted, demanded HEW issue the regulations unchanged by April 4, or action would occur. They called for sit ins at eight HEW regional headquarters, April 5th if HEW didn’t comply.
I think this was brilliant, because rather than waiting until watered-down regulations were issued publicly and then responding, issue by issue, this meant the government would have to respond to the demonstrators. Additionally, it was not that easy to organize people, particularly people with physical disabilities, in those days, due to lack of transit, support services and so on. A sit in meant people would go and stay, until the issue was resolved definitively.
The San Francisco federal building sit in, the only one that endured, lasted 28 days and was critical in forcing the signing of the regulations almost unchanged. It began with a rally outside the federal building, then we marched inside where between 1 and 200 people would remain until the end. The composition of the sit in represented the spectrum of the disability community with participation from people with a wide variety of disabilities, from different racial, social and economic backgrounds, and ages from adults to kids with disabilities and their parents.
We all felt that we were acting on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people who were not able to participate, people all over the country who were institutionalized or stuck in other dependency situations.
In the Bay Area, a broad cross disability coalition, the Emergency 504 Coalition, began building for a rally on April 5th, knowing we’d sit in afterwards. We set up committees to take on different tasks such as rally speakers, media, fund-raising, medics, monitors, publicity, and outreach.
The outreach committee was very successful in garnering broad community support: from churches, unions, civil rights organizations, gay groups, elected politicians, radical parties and others.
The work of that committee proved to be invaluable once we were inside the building. Those organizations built support rallies outside the building and the breath of the support made it more difficult to move against us. The International Association of Machinists facilitated our sending a delegation to Washington. Politicians sent mattresses and a shower hose to attach to the sink.
Glide Memorial Church and the Black Panther party sent many delicious meals that nourished us between days of coffee and doughnuts.
The other committees also continued inside the building. The media committee met regularly to review the coverage and discuss how to make our purpose more clear, how to use the press to get particular issues across. It directed reporters to appropriate spokespeople, called news conferences and so on.
The committees had a great deal of work to do and kept many people involved. This was good, because the conditions were physically grueling, sleeping sometimes three or four hours a night on the floor and everyone was under stress about their families, jobs, our health, the fact that we were all filthy and so on.
All the participants met daily to make tactical decisions. These were flowing, creative meetings but they often went on for hours, which meant very little sleep. But they were important in developing consensus and arriving at a course of action.
Some of the issues taken up in the mass meetings were: what to do if we were arrested, a hunger strike in sympathy with the Washington demonstrators who had been starved out, which we decided would be voluntary, how to deal with the bomb scare, the decision to have congressional hearings in the building on HEW’s list of proposed changes, who would speak at the hearing, who would speak at the rallies outside, the decision to send a contingent from the building to Washington DC, a process for choosing the 12 or so people who would go.
At every moment, we felt ourselves the descendants of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. We learned about sit ins from the civil rights movement, we sang freedom songs to keep up morale, and consciously show the connection between the two movements. We always drew the parallels. About public transportation we said we can’t even get on the back of the bus. A high point was Julian Bond’s visit to the building.
A congressional hearing was held in the building that was extremely dramatic. The testimony of Judy Heumann, Ed Roberts, Debby Kaplan, Phil Newmark and others was so compelling, that the representative from HEW got up and locked himself in an office. Congressman Phil Burton leapt up and ran after him and kicked on the door insisting he come out.
After about two weeks, a contingent was chosen to go to Washington to lend the moral authority and the leadership of the sit in to the efforts there to pressure the administration. We really wanted to break open the East Coast press and we wanted some more demonstrations that would mobilize people, and we were striving to get a meeting at the White House.
The machinists union, the IAM rented a large U-Haul truck with a lift on the back, and all the demonstrators who were wheelchair riders were transported in that vehicle. They held a large reception for us at their international headquarters, and after we had eaten, we were asked to speak and I believe we all sang We Shall Overcome . An international vice president became very involved in assisting us in anything we needed. They allowed us to use their union headquarters to organize demonstrations, so we had access to telephone lines, copy machines and other things necessary for organizing.
One of the first things was hold meetings in the capital with senators Alan Cranston and Harrison Williams. Sen. Cranston was one of the original sponsors of the legislation. Up until we met with him, he had been supporting the administration position. Cranston, at that time possibly the most important man in Congress, raised the administration’s objections to the “unchanged” 504 regulations, one by one. Each objection was answered by a different member of our delegation, and answered very thoroughly.
It was a testament to the group’s self-confidence and total understanding of the contested issues, that issue by issue, Cranston was turned around, in front of national TV cameras and other media. We were all extremely tired and sleep deprived and yet everyone managed to marshal their wits to carry out this extremely important political discussion. Frank Bowe, who was the director of ACCD, a deaf man, spoke last. He made such eloquent remarks, in which he said, “Senator, we are not even second-class citizens, we are third class citizens,” that we all began to cry.
An important tactic when we got to Washington was challenging Carter on having an open door administration. Each administration defines itself by a slogan such as The Great Society. The Carter administration presented itself as accessible to people and they called it the Open Door Administration , so we demonstrated wherever Carter and Califano went, forcing them to go out backdoors. At Carter’s church , when Califano spoke to the press club, holding vigils and prayers outside of Califano’s home was all about getting East Coast coverage. And that was important in getting us a meeting at the White House.
The sit in and contingent it sent to Washington were pivotal in getting strong 504 regulations signed that embodied concepts of equality and integration, and the affirmative steps that must be taken to achieve that for people with disabilities. 504 has never enforced as it should be. The Department of Transportation 504 regulations which called for reasonable, phased in measures to make public transportation accessible turned into a bitter fight between the American Public Transit Association and the disability community and were overturned in federal court in 1980. Those measures became part of the ADA 10 years later.
The HEW Section 504 regulations established the basic operational principles that became the basis for legal compliance with the ADA. Nondiscrimination is the fundamental right established by 504. Discrimination can occur through exclusionary practices as well as an inaccessible environment. Affirmative conduct may be required to remove architectural or communication barriers or to provide reasonable accommodations. People with disabilities experience discrimination as a class, irrespective of diagnosis.
504 established the three pronged legal definition of disability as opposed to a medical one. The definition includes people with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activity, those who have a record of such an impairment, and those who are regarded as having such an impairment. Another 504 principal that is particular to disability civil rights is the balancing of the individual’s right to be free from discrimination with the cost to society to effect a remedy. It established the right of an individual who has experienced discrimination to pursue an administrative remedy with the appropriate federal agency as well as to go to court.
Even though 504 wasn’t strongly enforced, the sit in was of historic importance. For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection. We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change. The sit in was a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again. Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were. And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems .
Without 504 — it’s coverage and example and the disability civil rights principles contained in the regulations we fought so hard for, and the empowerment of tens of thousands of disability activists through 504 trainings, and activities and mobilizations — there might well be no Americans with Disabilities Act, that finally brought us up to parity with federal civil rights laws covering gender and race.