restricted access Chapter 14. The Hew Demonstrations
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261 14 The HEW Demonstrations The anniversary of the date on which the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed, July 26, 1990, is commemorated in many towns and cities each year as “disability pride” day, but the anniversary of April 5, 1977, usually passes without comment. And yet the signing of the ADA in many ways marked the culmination of the national movement which had begun thirteen years earlier. On that spring day, demonstrators staged the “HEW,” or “504,” sit-ins, to protest the Carter administration’s reluctance to move forward with regulations to enforce what was at that time the most sweeping federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is a single sentence: No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. But few people fully understood the ramifications of that simple statement. One individual who did, however, was Frank Bowe, executive director of the newlyformedAmericanCoalitionofCitizenswithDisabilities.Bowedescribed how “the vast reach of United States Government funds, from schools to hospitals to mass transit facilities, meant that almost all of American life would be affected were section 504 to become effective.” Bowe also understood how “there was an unwritten rule in Washington: any provision of law that has not been implemented within three years of its enactment is, for all practical purposes , dead.”1 Passed in 1973, section 504 was already beyond that limit and on the verge of irrelevance by the time the newly elected Carter administration took office in January 1977. Regulations had been written in 1976 by officials in the outgoing Ford administration, staff of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 262 chapter 14 but they had never been implemented. Activists expected more from the newly elected president, but Jimmy Carter deferred to his secretary of HEW, Joseph Califano. Califano, who admitted at a meeting with Bowe that he’d never even heard of 504, refused to issue the regulations. Bowe, after consulting Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, decided the only remaining option was civil disobedience. “He’s got to feel pressure he doesn’t know how to deal with, something coming at him that’s outside his experience. There’s only one thing I can think of that meets those criteria: thousands of severely disabled people in his own offices.” On March 18, 1977, ACCD called for “a massive sit-in demonstration in every HEW regional office coast to coast” to begin April 5 unless the regulations were issued by that date.2 Rallies and sit-ins were staged in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington , DC, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and other cities around the country . These sit-ins, although they made their point, generally ended after only a single night. In Washington, for instance, the more than three hundred demonstrators sitting in at HEW federal headquarters were forced to leave after the police refused to allow them food, water, and medications. In San Francisco, however, demonstrators managed to hang on for twentyfive days and nights, a historic record for a sit-in of any federal building. Organizers there, in addition to bringing their own caches of food and medication, were also able to enlist local community groups, labor unions, and even the city government in support. Food was provided by the local chapter of the Black Panther Party, while the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and Mayor Moscone’s office eventually provided logistical and moral support, including mats and portable showers. The sight of people in wheelchairs, people who were Deaf or blind or who had multiple disabilities, willing to risk their health and even their lives to make a political statement brought national media attention. It also catalyzed disability activists across the country and around the world. The success of the HEW demonstrations, and the San Francisco occupation in particular, evoked feelings of pride and empowerment among people who had for too long been told to be ashamed and silent. As Judy Heumann put it, “There was a real sense of victory and power, which was not an illusion.”3 Mary Jane Owen, a participant in the San Francisco sit-in, explained, “It didn’t matter if you were mentally retarded, blind, or deaf. Everybody who came out felt: ‘We are beautiful , we are powerful, we are strong, we are...


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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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