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Before the A.D.A., There Was Section 504

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When the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed to prohibit employment discrimination based on disability, it was supposed to protect disabled people and ensure their rights in the United States.

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States,” Section 504 of that law reads, “shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Libraries, schools, courtrooms, subsidized transportation and countless other resources were “available” to the public — but still not accessible to the millions of disabled people who lived in the United States. Richard Scotch, a professor of sociology, public policy and political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas, said that when Section 504 was drafted, it was a beacon of hope.

The section operated on the social model of disability, which focuses not on a person’s “impairment,” but on ways in which their surroundings could better accommodate their needs.

“So instead of trying to fix the person,” Mr. Scotch said, “we’re trying to fix the environment to make it more inclusive.”

After twice being vetoed, the Rehabilitation Act was signed by President Richard M. Nixon. But four years later, the law had yet to be enacted. The cost to meet the new standards, which required retrofitting and fixing the many federally funded buildings around the country, would have been enormous, and as administrations changed, action was delayed for years.

By 1977 — after years of letter writing, lobbying and pleading with lawmakers — disability activists were tired of waiting. The American Coalition of Citizens With Disabilities said that if Joseph A. Califano Jr., the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter, did not take action by April 4, there would be national protests.

Image[Image description: Demonstrators with a sign reading “Sign 504 now.”] Protesters at United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on April 5, 1977.
Credit…Anthony Tusler

On April 5, demonstrators across the country began occupying federal offices; protesters in New York City showed up to protest outside of the H.E.W. offices in Manhattan, while disabled people in Washington occupied areas outside of Mr. Califano’s office. Sit-ins began across the country; federal buildings in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Seattle, among others, were occupied for hours or days.

In San Francisco, Judy Heumann, then 29, and Kitty Cone, who turned 33 during the protests, showed up at the regional H.E.W. office. With them were more than 100 other disabled protesters, interpreters and personal care aides.

But when the demonstrators arrived to meet with Joseph Maldonado, the regional director who reported to Mr. Califano, they expected him to be aware of the issues.

“No one had briefed him; he didn’t know what 504 was,” Ms. Heumann said in an interview with The New York Times. “We were incredulous about the fact that nobody was taking what we were doing seriously.”

“We stayed in the building,” she continued, “because Maldonado did not know what we were talking about.”

Credit…Anthony Tusler

As the occupation continued, the demonstrators in San Francisco had no idea that they would end up living there for almost a month, making it among the longest occupations of a federal building in U.S. history. Many of them showed up with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

“It was hard,” Ms. Cone said in a 2002 interview with Joseph Shapiro of NPR. “But it was also the most exhilarating, victorious, wonderful experience of many of our lives, too.”

While other demonstrations around the country fizzled out, the federal government was working to deter the protesters in San Francisco, cutting the building’s phone lines and water supply.

“If we left, we were going to be the last group to leave,” Ms. Heumann said, “and while we had no idea how long this was going to last, we really did have a belief that we could do it.”

Credit…HolLynn D’Lil

But they found unexpected allies. The city’s mayor, George Moscone, sent over mattresses and tried to arrange portable showers for the protesters. Members of other organizations, including the Black Panther Party and the Gray Panthers, brought supplies and cooked meals.

Brad Lomax, a member of the Black Panthers who had multiple sclerosis, took part in the 504 Sit-in, as did his aide, a fellow Black Panther named Chuck Jackson.

As the sit-in wore on, about two dozen of the demonstrators — including Ms. Heumann, Ms. Cone, Mr. Lomax and Mr. Jackson — decided to fly to Washington to put more pressure on Mr. Califano.

“We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals,” Ms. Heumann said that spring at a special hearing with members of Congress after a government official suggested creating “separate but equal” programs. “We want the law enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation.”

“And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement,” she said to Eugene Eidenberg, who was sent by H.E.W. to hear the group’s testimony, “when I don’t think you understand what we are talking about.”

Credit…HolLynn D’Lil

On April 28, 1977, the regulation was enacted. The San Francisco occupation lasted two more days — just enough time for the remaining demonstrators to clean up the building and await the return of those who had gone to Washington.

Though Section 504 applied only to federally funded buildings, the regulations laid the groundwork for the Americans With Disabilities Act, which extended the protections to all private institutions and workplaces when it was enacted 13 years later.

“We were creating a community that hadn’t existed earlier,” Ms. Heumann said, reflecting on the lasting effects of the sit-in. “We stayed together because people were recognizing and really were believing that we could make a difference.”



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