Paving the way to disability justice: Remembering the Section 504 Sit-ins

By Dorian EsperTaylor, ADA Disability Specialist, Office of Equity and Social Justice

Pictured: Brad Lomax, center, next to the activist Judy Heumann at a rally in 1977 at Lafayette Square in Washington. Next to Judy Heumann is Eunice Fiorito, President of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and another organizer of the national sit-ins and rallies. Image courtesy of the article “We Want 504!” from the Boundary Stones: WETA’s Washington DC History Blog.

When we think of the life-changing civil rights movements in the U.S., the road to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is often a forgotten struggle. Historically, civil rights movements in the U.S. have begun as radical struggles. Equal rights have been earned and fought for rather than given; disability rights and the pathway to the ADA were no different. One of the early victories was the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the first disability rights law in the U.S., which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in any program that received federal funds. As with any civil rights law, enforcement began slowly.

Passed in 1973, Section 504 could not be enforced until the regulations were approved. President Nixon refused, and by 1977 the regulations had still not been signed, despite then President Jimmy Carter saying he was an ally to people with disabilities. Joseph Califano, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) wanted to water down the rules and would not sign the regulations. Tired of being left behind, activists planned a national day of protest for April 5, 1977.  Organizers with disabilities began picketing HEW offices in major cities such as Washington D.C., Atlanta, Georgia, Boston, Massachusetts, Chicago, Illinois, Denver, Colorado, Los Angeles, California, New York, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Seattle, Washington. The most notable and impactful of all the protests was the San Francisco sit-in that lasted days, becoming the longest sit-in in U.S history. It was described as “perhaps the single most impressive act of civil disobedience in the United States in the last quarter century,” in The Activist’s Handbook: A Primer, by Randy Shaw.

Modeling the sit-in itself after the civil rights protests in the South, people flooded the buildings. Those with the strength to carry supplies and help with attendant care did. The Black Panthers provided meals and water. Deaf people became code talkers, signing messages out of the windows that the authorities could not decipher. HEW cut off all the phone lines and refused to allow anyone to return to the building if they left. Consensus decision-making ensured a consistent message, strategy and mutual support. Judy Heumann from the Berkeley Center for Independent Living emerged as an effective and powerful leader and spokesperson. Brad Lomax was a Black Panther and a wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis who had been active in planning the protests and sit-ins and coordinating support. He and other Black Panthers and disability activists created a cross-class, cross-disability protest that utilized everyone’s strengths.

Advanced planning and strategic coalition-building led to an outpouring of community support from churches, labor unions, civil rights organizations, LGBTQ groups, and radical parties. Local politicians like San Francisco Mayor George Moscone supported the sit-in, and local and national news covered it extensively. People staged rallies outside to support the nearly 100 activists who remained in the building for the full 26 days. A delegation of disabled activists, including Judy Heumann and Brad Lomax, flew to Washington, D.C. to pressure President Carter and Secretary Califano, meet with Senators, and testify at a congressional hearing. Together, they mounted enough pressure that Secretary Califano finally signed the Section 504 regulations, which went into effect on June 1, 1977.

Those 26 days of protest not only changed the law, but they also changed the culture in ways that still reverberate today. People with disabilities were seen in a new light because they had defeated ‘Goliath’ using the power of intersectional love and solidarity.

Ed Roberts, founder of the Independent Living movement said, “we, who are considered the weakest, the most helpless people in our society, are the strongest, and will not tolerate segregation, will not tolerate a society which sees us as less than whole people. But that we will, together, with our friends, will reshape the image that this society has of us.”

Thirteen years later in 1990, those Section 504 regulations became the basis for the ADA, which extended disability rights to all aspects of American society.

To learn more about this important moment in history, visit the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund website to read the articles 504 Sit-in 20th Anniversary and  Short History of the 504 Sit-in.

For questions or more information about Disability Pride Month contact Jenni Mechem, ADA/Civil Rights Section Manager with the Office of Equity and Social Justice.