In April 1977 more than 100 people with disabilities entered the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) office in San Francisco and, in protest, they refused to leave.
Three years prior, Congress had passed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was the first law to establish that entities receiving federal financial assistance have a responsibility to accommodate the basic needs of the disabled community. However, many people in the disabled community felt that the HEW and its secretary, Joseph A. Califano Jr., were taking too long to set the regulations for affected entities to follow in order to comply with the law.
Without those regulations, no one could implement the law, and it was effectively unenforceable. Thus began the longest sit-in at a federal building in United States history. It lasted over three weeks, until Califano signed regulations into law.
It was a record-breaking protest, known as the 504 Sit-In, but I had never heard about it until a few weeks ago, when YouTube’s algorithm decided to recommend to me a video about the protest. Of course, that meant I had to follow my curiosity down a rabbit hole of reading up on the disability rights movement.
I’m a bit ashamed that I had never heard much about the history of disability rights. I’m not going to say the American education system failed me in this regard; I was just not that curious about it when I was younger. I think it’s another sign of my privilege that I never needed to worry about it.
Growing up unaware of the disabled community’s political legacy meant that I assumed that disability rights were fairly uncontroversial. I took the gains of the disability rights movement for granted.
I’m finding, however, that the struggle never really seems to be over. From my conversations with other people in the disabled community, it’s clear there are still many barriers, whether institutional or environmental that prevent those of us with disabilities from offering everything we can to the society we live in.
The disabled community isn’t a burden on society; often, we are untapped potential.
But I’m heartened to see that many politicians, including many presidential nominees, are acknowledging this. And while I think it’s easy to be cynical and see these words from politicians as empty and self-serving, I prefer to be hopeful.
It’s nice to see that people are still raising these questions to push society to be better, because the needle of progress should always move forward. And we still have many issues to address.
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