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504 Sit-In: Winning Rights for the Disabled


It's a little-known moment in a little-known civil rights movement, but for people with disabilities, it's as important as Selma or Stonewall. Twenty-five years ago, a band of disabled people staged a sit-in at a federal office building in San Francisco. They were demanding enforcement of the first major law to bar discrimination against the disabled. The protesters believed the law would bring one of the nation's most isolated and powerless groups into the mainstream. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.


Mary Jane Owen wanted to be prepared for a sit-in that could last maybe for a couple of days. So she was careful about the things she brought on April 5th, 1977.

Ms. MARY JANE OWEN: A black skirt and a black top that was the same. And I had a stole, a scarf, that I knew I could sleep under. I had my toothbrush, a comb, of course, and deodorant.

SHAPIRO: And Mary Jane Owen carried her white cane. Her career as a college professor was just taking off when she lost her sight. For five years she couldn't find anyone who would hire a blind woman. That sort of barrier was part of everyday life for the disabled. Buildings blocked with steps, buses they couldn't board. The protest was an attempt to make people understand.


Unidentified Man #1: Well, Isabelle, what's going on now is an overnight sit-in. Actually, the demonstration is going on throughout the entire nation: Washington and New York and Denver, here in San Francisco.

SHAPIRO: Americans were well-accustomed to seeing civil rights marches, but this one was something new. People in wheelchairs, some who sucked on the plastic tubing of portable respirators, deaf people, people with mental retardation, and they were fighting mad.


Unidentified Group of Protesters: (In unison) Sign that law! Sign that law! Sign that law!

SHAPIRO: What they wanted was the signing of regulations, regulations to enact a law known as Section 504. It would force hospitals, universities, anyplace that got federal money to remove the obstacles to services. But complying with the law could be expensive. So for nearly four years the government failed to enforce it. Demonstrators in other cities went home, but in San Francisco at the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, they did not give up. One day turned into a second day and then a third.


Unidentified Man #2: They're tired, they're grubby, they're uncomfortable, but their spirits are soaring, and 125 disabled and handicapped are pledging they'll continue the sit-in through tomorrow night, if not longer. The squeeze is on, though, hot water has been turned off on the fourth floor where the occupation army of cripples has taken over.

SHAPIRO: Kitty Cone helped organize the protest. She was born with muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair. Cone remembers the growing pressure on people to give up and leave.

Ms. KITTY CONE: The diet was lousy. We got doughnuts and coffee and sometimes we got a decent meal, and I think that there were some people who really did sacrifice their health. It put a terrific strain on people's marriages and relationships. Some people lost their jobs.

SHAPIRO: Federal officials tried to push out the demonstrators, but support did come from many other parts of the city. The mayor sent over mattresses. Food arrived, donated by Safeway, cooked by members of the Black Panther Party. The business of government went on in the offices around them. In the mornings, the disabled greeted workers with daffodils and a serenade of protest songs. Mary Jane Owen broke three white canes keeping rhythm. And as the sit-in wore on, something else happened, something that sustained them.

Ms. JUDY HEUMANN: It was really a little community.

SHAPIRO: That's Judy Heumann. She had dreamed of becoming an elementary schoolteacher. But she was turned away because she used a wheelchair. Heumann remembers how just the act of sitting in made people feel powerful, especially those who had led isolated lives.

Ms. HEUMANN: People learned new skills, people took on assignments. We had committees, all kinds of committees. Because we wanted to make sure that people had real work to do during the day or the demonstrations would have fallen apart if people would have been bored and didn't feel like they were making a difference.

SHAPIRO: Again, Kitty Cone.

Ms. CONE: It was hard. But it was also the most exhilarating, victorious, wonderful experience of many of our lives, too.

SHAPIRO: Mary Jane Owen recalls how the sit-in transformed one young woman who walked on metal crutches.

Ms. OWEN: We decided to play the game `I wish.' What would you wish for? And when it got to her, she said, `You know, if you had asked me this a month ago, I would have said, "I don't want to be a cripple. I want to be beautiful." But now I know I'm beautiful.'


Unidentified Woman #1: It is nearing two weeks now since 150 handicapped people moved into the HEW offices. And it was today, in response to that occupation, that a special congressional hearing convened.

SHAPIRO: The protesters had gotten no response from Washington but they did get the attention of two California congressmen who arrived to conduct a hearing. In a room crowded with wheelchairs, demonstrators testified about their lives of exclusion. Kitty Cone recalls the outcry when a government official testified that it might be cheaper to set up separate programs just for the disabled.

Ms. CONE: He said the word `separate but equal' and I believe it was at that point that Judy Heumann began to cry and said, `You don't even have any idea how you're affecting us.'


Ms. HEUMANN: We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals. We want the law enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation. And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don't think you understand what we are talking about.


SHAPIRO: Still, there was no response from Washington. The protesters felt pressed to do something dramatic. So Judy Heumann, Kitty Cone and several others flew to Washington to demand a face-to-face meeting with President Carter or with HEW Secretary Joseph Califano.


Unidentified Woman #2: It was sweltering hot but they went to HEW anyway, staying in the streets when the curb stopped them. They were trying to force a meeting with Califano after he had canceled one scheduled earlier. But they were blocked.

Ms. HEUMANN: I felt like I was being excluded from a building that I pay taxes to keep open, and I am absolutely mortified that President Carter is allowing this to go on. And to have these big six-foot, seven-foot cops standing there with people my size is the most ludicrous thing that I have ever been involved in.

Mr. EVAN WHITE: Oh, it was a remarkable scene, as Judy described it. She's a tiny thing.

SHAPIRO: Evan White was a television correspondent who followed Judy Heumann to Washington.

Mr. WHITE: She and a--Oh, I don't know--half-dozen, 10 others in wheelchairs were trying to go in the building. They locked the doors and they decided to make sort of a forceful run at it. And these huge guards in uniform were--at first didn't know quite what to do and they elected eventually to kick the wheelchairs, to stop them with their feet and try to kick them over, which with our television camera going was probably not the best public relations the government wanted at the time.

SHAPIRO: Unable to force a meeting with Califano, Heumann worried that the protest was failing, and with it, a last chance to implement the civil rights law. But then came a surprise.


Unidentified Man #3: Good evening. Thirty-five million Americans, handicapped Americans, won a big victory today.

SHAPIRO: On April 28th, after 24 days of the sit-in, Califano signed the regulations with a few small changes. Today he ranks it as one of his proudest accomplishments and he credits the sit-in, which he compares to Martin Luther King's march on Selma.

Former Secretary JOSEPH CALIFANO (HEW): I really came to understand that there was, in this country, not simply a sort of discrimination against the handicapped, but there was really a sense of hiding them. You know? Just keep them out of sight, and they'll be out of mind. And I really--my whole attitude about that changed. It had a tremendous impact on me.

SHAPIRO: The protesters had won. But then came another surprise. They simply refused to leave the building. The press was told they stayed to clean up the mess they had made. Mary Jane Owen remembers the real reason.

Ms. OWEN: We had had a glorious experience together and it had been our home, probably in many ways the most accepting and loving home we'd ever been in. I think that there were no people in that building that didn't feel that they were affirmed and reaffirmed and then reaffirmed again. It was almost like we were in a Nirvana, we were in a heaven, we were in a place of great safety and love, and we were going back out into that world to struggle as individuals again.

SHAPIRO: Two days later the demonstrators did leave to cheers and shouts. Mary Jane Owen sang for one last time "We Shall Overcome" and she kept time by clapping two sticks together. They were the shards of a white cane that had broken during the sit-in.


Ms. OWEN & Protesters: (In unison) That we have overcome today.

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING, APPLAUSE Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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