The Sit-in That Ended Segregation of the Disabled

I'll begin with a quiz. What major American event celebrated its 30th anniversary this week? Bonus question: What group was responsible for the longest "sit-in" protest, taking over a federal buildi

Apr 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm

I'll begin with a quiz. What major American event celebrated its 30th anniversary this week? Bonus question: What group was responsible for the longest "sit-in" protest, taking over a federal building in a major U.S. city, in our nation's history?

The answers to both are summed up in one fact. April 5, 30 years ago, was the day that 75 — a group which grew to 150 — representatives of the American Council of Citizens with Disabilities held to their promise to President Jimmy Carter a few months earlier: that if the 504 regulations, as written in 1976, to the Rehabilitation Act were not signed into law, there would be a highly visible protest.

With manual and power wheelchairs, possessing a variety of physical and sensory impairments, the group settled in on the fourth floor of San Francisco's Health Education and Welfare building, staying put, they maintained, until the 504 regulations were law.

What was 504? It was the section of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act mandating that any facility receiving federal funding would, in simple terms, render that program or facility accessible by people with disabilities.

The leaders of the "504 sit-in," as it has come to be called, were Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann, people who themselves had faced inestimable barriers, because of their physical disabilities and wheelchairs, to receiving an education and securing a job.

The argument was a pretty straightforward one.

The regulations had been watered down to the point that "separate but equal" for kids and adults with disabilities would have been legal — and thereby acceptable. What the protesters sought was approval of the original regulations written in 1975 and which President Carter had promised to support.

The regulations specified that it would be illegal for any institution receiving federal dollars to prevent the inclusion of people with disabilities. Government agencies, in other words, could not refuse to hire a qualified job applicant because he had — or was perceived to have — a disability. College campuses could not, when renovating a building, have an alternative with stairs or doors too narrow for a wheelchair's entrance.

The regulations meant, in other words, that it would be illegal to ignore the needs of people with disabilities.

When you think of a sit-in, you probably think of staying put in one place without the conveniences of the outside world. True enough. But for those who commandeered the fourth floor of that San Francisco Federal Building, "staying put" was far more complicated.

Imagine what it would be like if you depended on a wheelchair for mobility and the only bathroom on the floor had doors so heavy that they must be propped open for easy entrance. Imagine, for that matter, what it was like for those who typically depended on personal assistance to dress and bathe to stay in one place. All for a principle.

Roberts, who is often dubbed the father of the disability rights movement, was the spokesman and one of the group's primary leaders. On April 15, when the sit-in had gone 10 days, he delivered a memorable speech in which he captured the spirit of the sit-in.

"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," he said.

After 26 days of living on that fourth floor, with the bathroom doors propped open and all manner of unspoken hardships, a contingent was flown to Washington, D.C., for 10 days of negotiations.

The reward was great: The 504 regulations were signed into law, and the foundation for what would become 13 years later the Americans with Disabilities Act was laid.

That 26-day takeover of a federal building stands as the longest such protest in our nation's history. It is to the American with Disabilities Act what Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) is to the Civil Rights Act.

I wasn't there. But I deeply admire and respect those who were. I salute them on this 30th anniversary of their remarkable perseverance.

This story is only one small chapter in the history of Americans with disabilities demanding their rights. Like so many others, it is too little remembered and warrants honor and respect. It was an awesome occasion, but 30 years have passed and there is still so far to go.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)