April 23, 2002 --
Twenty five years ago this week, disability rights activists in San Francisco were still holding firm, in what was the last week of the longest sit-in demonstration in a federal building in U.S. history. They and other activists around the country were pressuring the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Joseph Califano to sign regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first federal civil rights protections for persons with disabilities in the history of the United States.
Section 504 had become law in 1973, but regulations were never issued. As Richard Scotch explains in his book From Goodwill to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy, concerns about cost -- and about the new idea of rights for disabled people -- kept Nixon's HEW Secretary David Mathews from issuing rules. Pres. Jimmy Carter's new HEW Secretary, Joseph Califano, was not in any hurry to issue them either.
The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities decided "that if the regulations were not signed by April 4 in the form they were in when Califano took office, there would be nonviolent demonstrations in HEW offices nationwide," writes Disability Studies Quarterly Editor David Pfeiffer, who at the time was organizing the demonstrations in Boston. "Demonstrations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., would be large, they warned."
"The demonstrations changed the course of history," says the Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. "No one expected to live there for almost a month, but they did," said Kitty Cone, one of the demonstrators.
The rules were signed April 28, 1977. On Sunday, April 28, on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, reporter Joseph Shapiro revisited the nation's longest sit-in, with interviews of the original demonstrators and archival audiotapes. The story is on the NPR website at http://www.npr.org/programs/wesun/features/2002/504/index.html. "It seems incredible today that Section 504 was an inconspicuous part of the statute which brought it into life as a federal law," says Pfeiffer. His account of events leading up to the demonstrations is online at http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/0102/0102ft6.html. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund's 504 Anniversary website, with links to historic photos and first-person accounts, is at http://www.dredf.org/504/history.html