This is a blog post originally published on January 16, 2014 for BK Nation, “Disability Justice and Social Justice: Entwined Histories and Futures” by Alice Wong, Project Coordinator of the Disability Visibility Project.
As Americans take time to reflect on the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, some will spend their day serving the community, some will tweet or post something on Facebook as a sign of solidarity…and some will sleep in, enjoying their day off.
Just as Dr. King and the many activists involved in the civil rights movement were influenced by Gandhi and Thoreau’s use of civil obedience, leaders of the disability- rights movement witnessed first-hand the power of non-violence in the 1950s and 1960s.
Similarities exist among the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham campaign in 1963, and actions taken by disabled activists in the 1970s. Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities from participating in any program or activity receiving federal funds based on incapacity.
Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano refused to sign regulations related to Section 504. On April 5, 1977, non-violent protests and demonstrations began nationwide. A group of disabled activists began a sit-in at the San Francisco offices of HEW, the longest such demonstration ever undertaken. Kitty Cone, one of the demonstrators at the 504 sit-in, recalls:
“At every moment, we felt ourselves the descendants of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. We learned about sit-ins from the civil rights movement, we sang freedom songs to keep up morale, and consciously show the connection between the two movements. We always drew the parallels. About public transportation we said we can’t even get on the back of the bus.”
On April 28, 1977, Caifano signed the regulations and the historic protest ended. Section 504 codified civil rights for people with disabilities and the notion that people with disabilities are a distinct minority group and protected those individuals from discrimination.
Alice Wong is a Staff Research Associate, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Alice works on various research projects for the Community Living Policy Center, a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administration for Community Living. She is an author of online curricula for home care providers and caregivers for Elsevier’s College of Personal Assistance and Caregiving. Currently, she is the Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project: A Community Partnership with StoryCorps and an advisory board member of APIDC, Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California. Alice is also a Presidential appointee to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies on disability policy.