Sit-in Sparks Government Action

Section 504 of the Rehab Act emerged from the 1970s struggle

Advances in civil rights rarely if ever happen without public pressure. Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act stipulates that any federally funded program must provide equal access to persons with disabilities. The law itself came up against a veto by Nixon that was ultimately overruled by Congress. In 1977, United States Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano refused to issue regulations implementing and enforcing the act. A coalition of disability activist groups issued an ultimatum for action with a deadline of April 4, 1977, but the date passed without movement by the government.

On April 5, demonstrations by people with disabilities took place in ten cities across the country. By the end of the day, demonstrations in nine cities were over. However, in one city — San Francisco — protesters refused to disband. There, more than 150 people with disabilities took over the federal office building and refused to leave. They stay almost a month, until May 1, not leaving until they had reviewed and approved of the regulations finally issued by Califano on April 28.