The following is a commentary submitted to but not used by NPR. The 504 Demonstration is a nearly universally unknown moment in American history that deserves inclusion in our common body of knowledge for school instruction. Recently, the movie Crip Camp‘s nomination for an Academy Award, and memoirs by Judy Heumann and myself, plus HolLynn D’lil’s fantastic photojournalism book on the 504 Demonstration, have begun to teach those unaware of this seminal event in disability rights and American history. Here’s the commentary, still an apt reflection on 504.
NPR Commentary Suggestion
Submitted by Jeff Moyer
Twenty-five years ago this month, I participated in the longest occupation of a Federal building in U.S. history. One hundred twenty-five people with disabilities, parents of kids with disabilities, and non-disabled supporters staged an unexpected civil disobedience action that has remained an unsung chapter of America’s Civil Rights legacy. The demonstration occurred to press for the signing of regulations to finally implement Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehab Act was passed over President Nixon’s veto. Section 504 was the controversial piece of the law, promising Americans with disabilities an end to discrimination. As a candidate, Jimmy Carter committed in Warm Springs, Georgia, that, if elected, he would have the regulations signed that would finally implement that civil rights law. Those drafted regs had languished for four years. We learned that new drafts would offer the unacceptable alternative of “separate but equal” accommodations. So, in early April 1977, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities organized demonstrations at Federal buildings to press for the signing of the long-overdue regulations that would finally ensure our civil rights.
I was the blind guy with the bull horn, leading chants as we rallied in front of the Federal building in San Francisco. And I was the troubadour with the guitar who used the tool of song, learned from the civil rights movement of the sixties to communicate the issues for which we stood. We entered the building and settled in for the duration until regulations were signed. For nearly an entire month, the demonstrators lived on the fourth floor of the Federal building to pressure the Carter Administration to sign the promised regulations. I was not one of the heroic scores of people who lived within the difficult circumstances of the Federal building full time; I commuted back and forth to the demonstration in order to fulfill my responsibilities at home to my wife and infant son. But thoughts of that monumental accomplishment come to mind this month as we celebrate that historic turning point.
I stayed several nights, and I recall helping to get Hale, a man with severe cerebral palsy, out of his wheelchair and bedded down on the hard carpeted floor. We became an inclusive community supporting each other in genuine and humble ways, what Dr.Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” Today, the broad-reaching Americans With Disabilities Act is grounded in the principles of Section 504. Our society has become more inclusive, although we have a long way to go. Thanks to those brave individuals whose tenacity and personal sacrifice a quarter-century ago have helped to make a more just society for all of us.