504: More than just a number

By Avery Ross, G11

If you’re someone with a disability of any kind then it’s likely that you know very well about the significance of this three digit number. If you are not someone with a disability or someone with an undiagnosed one then you probably don’t know much about this number unless you’re a history geek (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Assuming that you’re probably reading this article having no knowledge of this number’s importance and you want to learn about why this number was life changing for a huge portion of our population, the first thing you need to know about is the 504 sit-in. Before 1973 there was no federal protection for disabled people, nothing to protect us, as Americans, from discrimination based upon our disabilities or exclusion from activities because of our disabilities. 

Photo by Tom Olin
Disability rights activists pictured in Madison Avenue in New York in 1993

Before a federal civil rights protection was passed, disabled people didn’t believe that the issues unique to them, that they faced on a daily basis, were a spawn of discrimination and prejudice; it was thought to be a personal problem. Disability had been defined by pity and paternalism. It was again thought to be a personal problem if someone using a wheelchair couldn’t go to a specific university or ride a bus because there were no accommodations put in place to help them gain access to those opportunities. During the 1970s and long before, disabled people encountered discrimination in the work place, schools, housing, transportation and sadly so much more. There needed to be a protection act put in place to grant disabled people the same rights and opportunities that everyone else had—there needed to be equity. 

Thus, in 1973 the Rehabilitation Act was created to prevent discrimination of disabled people when it came to employment. This law was supposed to guarantee disabled people rights and shield them from discrimination. 

Public places and unquantifiable amounts of resources were available to the public, that is the non-disabled fraction of the public; these resources were still inaccessible for many disabled people who resided in the United States. 

What was so amazing about the 504 plan is that it combatted discrimination by not classifiying a disability as a “personal problem” and instead asked the public to provide accommodation to those that needed it. Examples of accommodations are extra time on tests for those with learning disabilities or a ramp in public buildings for people who were confined to wheelchairs. Instead of focusing on one’s disability, it focused on how their environment could provide them with the necessary accommodations. 

The Rehabilitation Act had been turned down twice before being signed by former president of the United States Richard Nixon, but after being signed off, even years later, the law had yet to actually be implemented. Since the administration had changed drastically due to Nixon’s impeachment, the money needed to enact this law had not been put forward, thus creating a 4 year wait. 

Once 1977 rolled around, people of the disabled community were fed up. They had written letters, lobbied and pleaded with lawmakers only to still see no change. By April 5th, protests had erupted across the nation. In San Francisco, Judy Heumann and Kitty Cone (two very large figures in the disabled rights movement) stormed the regional H.E.W. office with fellow disabled protesters. Judy, Kitty and the other protesters had no idea that they were beginning one of the longest occupations of a federal building in U.S. history. While other protests across the country began to die down, the federal government was still working to clear the building in San Francisco of protesters by cutting off their water supply and phone lines but this group was not alone in their fight. San Francisco’s mayor at the time, George Moscone, attempted to provide portable showers for the protesters as well as mattresses. Other organizations such as the Black Panther Party and Grey Panthers provided cooked meals and supplies. Some members of the Black Panther Party such as Brad Lomax and Chuck Jackson even joined the sit-in. 

As the sit-in continued, 20 of the protesters flew to Washington to put an increased amount of pressure on Mr. Califano. During their stay in Washington they had a hearing with multiple members of congress where Judy spoke the legendary words: “We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals. We want the law to be enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation. And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement.” She said this to Eugene Eidenburg, a man sent by H.E.W. to listen to the group’s testimony that had been mockingly nodding to what Judy had been saying, continuing, “when I don’t think you understand what we are talking about.” 

Kitty Cone captured speaking to the press. (Source: Smithsonian.)

After immense amounts of pressure were put on the government by Judy Heumann, Kitty Cone, the Black Panther Party, and all the protesters that participated in the sit-in, the regulation was implemented on April 28th 1977. This regulation laid the groundwork for the Americans With Disabilities Act and so much more. If it weren’t for this Act being passed, disabled people would still have little to no legal protection from discrimination of any manner. Now that you’ve read this article, hopefully this three digit number resonates with you and empowers you to fight for change. 

Cover Image courtesy of Tutaria, 2019.

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