History Lesson

This week I offer a pair of pieces that have grown from my experiences with the Occupy Movement.

To get yourself in the appropriate mood, imagine yourself crammed into one of those chairs with desk attached as a person stands before the room with a blackboard as backdrop. a
In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act which included Section 504 containing arguably the most ground-breaking sentence in terms of disability rights. a
“No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Forty one words that would change the face of employment, education, and public access for the then approximately 35,000,000 disabled people in the United Sates. aFour years after the passage of the law, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) had yet to sign the regulations that would allow for implementation and enforcement. a
Frustrated passed endurance and schooled by their struggles over more than twelve years as well as the efforts of other civil rights groups, disabled people took action organizing protests at ten sites across the country, including Washington DC and the federal building in San Francisco. aWhile the other nine protests ended in a couple of days, the one in San Francisco stretched twenty five days. a
The occupation in Washington DC is particularly of note because of the reason it was unable to continue. aThe Secretary of HEW Joseph Califano, who was being pressured to sign the 504 regulations, ordered no food or medicine be allowed into the building. aCalls to the press to publicize this decision went unanswered and the protestors were forced to leave. a
UC Berkeley’s campus in the 1960s is usually acknowledged as the birthplace of the disability rights movement in the United States. aFrom one man in a wheelchair (Ed Roberts) matriculating to the formation of the Physically Disabled Students Program to the founding of the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, the Bay Area was the “cradle of disability rights.” aBy 1977, the activists were educated, savvy, and determined. aThey were also done with segregation and their second class status. a
I want you to imagine the situation for a moment. aA bunch of wheelchair users, blind people, Deaf people, people with developmental disabilities, and others with disabilities set forth to occupy a building that lack simple things like accessible bathrooms. aSome needed assistance to eat, dress, or perform bodily functions. aSome were dependent upon respirators. aMany had medical conditions and extended occupation presented a major health risk. aStill, one hundred and twenty five of them stayed for twenty five days. a
Fortunately, the city of San Francisco was there to help and many occupiers credit their ability to stay to this support. aThe Mayer sent over mattresses and portable shower heads. aGrocery stores donated food and the Black Panther Party cooked it. aLabor unions offered support. aSeveral priests stayed with the occupiers to provide physical assistance. aWith the support of an entire city, an “army of cripples” managed something not seen before or sense.
To keep the occupation going, people were assigned tasks and consequently learned new skills. aAs had been the practice within the movement for some time, disabled people helped each other with the blind carrying out physical acts while wheelchair users might read print materials or be sighted guides. a What came into being was as Judy Heuman one of the organizers described it, “a little community” with transformative power. a
One day, a group of occupiers played “I Wish” and a young woman who used crutches said that a month ago she would have wished to not be crippled instead beautiful, but now she knew she was beautiful. a
Eventually, it was decided that a small contingent must travel to Washington and directly lobby Joseph Califano and if possible President Carter. aA DC labor union provided a moving-type truck to transport the activists around DC. aA wheelchair user would ride the lift up and wheel into the back of the truck. aWith everyone inside and the door left open slightly for ventilation, the wheelchair users would hold tight to the chairs ajacent so that instead of banging together around turns or at stops, they at least shifted in a mass. a
The goal became stalking Califano from vigils outside his home to “educating” the neighborhood children to appearing outside whatever building he happened to be inside. aA candlelight ceremony was held outside President Carter’s local church. aUnfortunately, the protesters were unable to meet with anyone actually able to help.
Then, suddenly, Califano signed the regulations and in hindsight he sees it as one of his more notable acts. aOddly enough, it took two days for the San Francisco federal building occupiers to disband. aSome say it was because they wished to scrutinize the regulations to make certain they had not been watered down. aSome say it was so they could clean up the mess they’d made. aSome say it was because most of them finally felt like they’d found “their” community and didn’t want to leave it for a less hospitable world. a
A landmark moment in U.S. protest history, few people know of the occupation of a federal building by one hundred twenty five disabled people, yet it is incredibly relevant today. aAs Occupy protestors gather, march, sleep, eat, and work to change the world, I hope each remember that disability is the one marginalized group joined without warning or choice. aLet disability matter now so that down the road those of you who become one of us inherit an inclusive world. Don’t leave us out because tomorrow you do not want to be one of those left out.

Below are a list of materials I reviewed to refresh and expand my knowledge of the events.
NPR’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of the 1977 events is here.
An article containing a great deal of historical context as well as specifics to the 1977 protest is here.
I also skimmed someone’s paper for more context and you can find the PDF here.
In general, I highly recommend:
Joseph Shapiro, No Pity, People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement
(New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993),
And Wikipedia has a very comprehensive entry here.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

3 thoughts on “History Lesson

  1. I’m in los angeles, and a very lonely radical crrpl. seems there is no discussion here either on dis-ability within social justice movements, and i’m just not interested in working within establishment NGOs that deal with these issues in isolation of larger issues. i would very much like to have an opportunity to communicate with you. my twitter handle is emma_rosenthal. i am also on fb at http://www.facebook.com/emmarosenthal and you can find my blog at http://inbedwithfridakahlo.wordpress.com/ where you can see my comments re the occupy movement, especially los angeles, which made it quite clear, pwds were not welcome. i would very much like to connect with you.

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