26 Days

Spring 2022

“26 days”

grace roth

After various protests and demonstrations, Richard Nixon reluctantly signs the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 into law. This act gives protected status to people with disabilities and using language similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, makes discrimination due to a disability illegal. However, Section 504, outlining what classifies as protected, what classifies as discrimination, as well as how and when the federal government will enforce this new law, is not signed. Section 504 sits unsigned for 4 years – essentially saying the law exists but there is no way to enforce it. Lawyers with the disability activists create strong protections and send them to the new Director of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

The disability community files a lawsuit and a judge rules that regulations must be issued; however, it did not give a deadline. “At that time in history, there was simply no access—no right to an education, no public transit. You couldn’t get into a library or city hall, much less a courtroom,” says 504 Sit-In participant, author, and queer and disability rights advocate Corbett Joan O’Toole. The Director of HEW from Jimmy Carter’s administration, James Califano, creates a taskforce that does not include a single disabled person. Leaks inform the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) that the task force was weakening protections in the proposed regulations due to growing pushback from schools, hospitals, and local and city governments. Organizers with ACCD decided they could no longer tolerate their rights being withheld. They decided to act.

ACCD demands the regulations as originally written be signed into law by April 4 and threatens demonstrations if not. Eight are planned around the country, and seven end at the end of the day as expected; however, in San Francisco, activists stay for 28 days. Working beforehand to set up committees and connections, organizers prepare to stay until their protections are guaranteed by federal law.

Through incredible cooperation, resourcefulness, and courage, everyone present makes tactical decisions and works together to keep everyone alive, fed, safe, and present – fashioning a refrigerator out of an AC window to keep peoples’ medicines and physically carrying each other when necessary.
Judy Huemann, Ed Roberts, Debby Kaplan, Phil Newark and others offers congressional testimony at the HEW building.

Other local organizations become invested and work together with the disability rights demonstrators. The Oakland Black Panther Party drive hot meals across the bay everyday, and the machinists Union (IAM) rent a truck for wheelchair riders to make the cross-country journey when members of the protest are invited to Washington to meet with California senators. At the capital, the activists deftly counter every objection to the regulations brought up. The delegation in Washington and the sit in in San Francisco were successful in getting the regulations signed on April 30, 1977 – four years later. This legislation, forced by demonstrators and activists, paved the way for the American Disability Act of 1990. Organized activism created community power for a group historically left on the margins – a prime example of courage, determination, and a duty to justice.

“Disabled people are incredibly resourceful,” O’Toole says. “That is a commonly misunderstood and overlooked part of our history, and it led to the success of 504.”

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