Chapter 10. Activists and Organizers, Part 2
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183 10 Activists and Organizers, Part 2 Disabled in Action was founded by Judith Heumann in New York City as a direct action disability rights group. This was, in 1970, a radical idea in and of itself, since almost all organizations having to do with disability were either service organizations, run and staffed by non-disabled, medical or quasi-medical professionals, or single disability constituency groups such as the National Federation of the Blind or the National Association of the Deaf. Even the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and its predecessor, the Physically Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley, were first established with the goal of delivering services, such as a wheelchair repair shop and accessible transit. DIA, by contrast, existed solely to put pressure on the local political system. In this regard it was most similar to the California Association of the Physically Handicapped, which by 1970 was already quite active—although the two groups, working on opposite sides of the country, were as yet unaware of each other. DIA (like CAPH) still exists, and has grown to encompass chapters in New York City, Syracuse, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Judith Heumann (continued) “We kept searching . . . where is the power? Who are the power brokers?” Disabled in Action played a leading role in the campaigns to override President Nixon’s veto of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to push for enforcement of the act’s groundbreaking Section 504, and in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Moreover, many of the group’s alums went on to prominence in the independent living movement, as staff, directors, and in some cases founders of various independent living centers across the country. All of this came out of Judy Heumann’s lawsuit against the New York City 184 chapter 10 Board of Education, challenging its right to deny her work simply because she had a disability. In the course of pursuing her lawsuit, Heumann had become the center of a group of like-minded young adults with disabilities, people who were angered at the injustice, galvanized by her victory, and eager to achieve more. A number of my friends and I—for three or four years previous—had been going to different meetings of different organizations, trying to find a place that we felt represented our interests in a disability rights political organization. We had been involved in a couple of different groups, but they weren’t organizations that spanned cross-disability and cross-issues. So as we were moving forward with this lawsuit, Denise McQuade1 and I and a couple of other people decided that what we ought to do was to try to start an organization. We gathered up all the names of the people that had been contacting us about the lawsuit, plus friends and other people that we knew, and invited them to a meeting, which happened at Long Island University. We had about eighty-some people who came to the meeting—quite remarkable. We formed the organization, which for one week was called Handicapped in Action. I hated the name, so I lobbied everybody to change it. I thought Handicapped in Action was much too retro. At that point, in the seventies, “disabled” was not a word that was being used a lot here in the States, but it was a word that was being used in Scandinavia. They had already done their analysis of what was wrong with “handicapped,” so it seemed that if we were supposed to be starting a progressive organization , starting it with the word “handicapped” was not exactly on the right track. So we changed the name. We were always working. We were doing newsletters, we were doing mailings. We were always answering letters because we were getting lots of letters. “My kid has a disability, and they’re not letting him into school” or “I have spinal cord injury and I can’t get out of the nursing home” or whatever. What did you do with a letter like that? We just answered them to the best of our ability, referring them to people that we thought maybe could help, or giving them information about what we thought they might want to do. We had no staff. We all were working full-time. As a rule, we didn’t start with demonstrations. We wanted always for people not to be able to say that we were “hot-headed.” We wanted to be activists and organizers, part 2 185 able to lay out...

Subject Headings

  • United States. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • People with disabilities -- Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
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