Section 504

Over the past few posts we’ve been discussing the history of disability in the United States, but we haven’t seen any legislation for the group. There have been government-funded programs, but no laws put into place to help disabled people live a full and equal life.  It wasn’t until 1973 that the disability-centered first civil rights law was put into place, and it happened with little notice.

Section 504: Under the Radar

The funny thing about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is that the bill was never asked for.  There was no outcry in any of the disability communities for this to get passed. A lot of people weren’t even aware of it.  The main purpose of the bill was to spend $1.55 billion in federal aid to the disabled over a two-year period. On the surface, and as far as president Richard Nixon was concerned, this was a bill to allocate funds.  Nixon had even vetoed previous, similar spending bills for being too costly.  

At the end of the bill, unnoticed by most putting it into law, were four provisions. One of them is the infamous Section 504.  Among these provisions, and perhaps the most important, was that Section 504 made it illegal for any federally-funded institution to deny someone services solely because of disability.  Nobody remembers who wrote these provisions into the bill, but the wording is almost word for word copied from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act made it illegal for the same services to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.  Members of congress were either unaware of these provisions or viewed them as nothing more than an empty gesture, as there were no hearings surrounding them.  

Important, But Practical?

Ed Roberts and Judith Heumann, both politically active by now, were soon to recognize the bill’s importance.  President Ford also understood what the bill was trying to do as well. The administration’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare estimated that full compliance of all regulations would cost billions of dollars.  During his term as president, Ford drafted a draft of 185 pages of regulations. President Carter promised to continue this work when he became president, and handed it over to his HEW Secretary, Joseph Califano.  

Stalling Leads To Uprise

The scope of 504 immediately overwhelmed Califano.  Carter and Califano set a group of lawyers to rewrite some of the regulations, fearing that other groups (alcoholics, gays, etc.) would try and claim protection under this law too.  504 never covered these groups. Califano wanted time, but by this time word of the bill had gotten out. The head of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, Frank Bowe, and his colleagues were tired of waiting.  A group of demonstrators, mostly in wheelchairs, held a candlelight vigil at Califano’s home in 1977. Another, larger, protest saw nearly 300 people take over Califano’s office, occupying for 28 hours after being refused food, water, or use of the phones.


On the west coast, aggravated that her friends in Washington were starved out, Heumann set up her own protest.  With her own group of disabled colleagues and friends, they occupied the sixth floor of the local HEW office for 25 days.  At first, the group was met with condescension. The people working in the office offered them snacks, treating them like children on a school trip.  When the office realized the group was serious, they too began to cut off contact with the outside world. No food, no PCAs in or out, no way to exchange oxygen tanks or other medical necessities.  This backfired on the HEW, and only made the conviction of the protestors stronger. During these 25 days, the group would see Roberts stop in and give inspiring speeches to the sit-in, which had grown to over 125 protestors.  

Since there was limited use of phones due to being cut off, protestors had to find alternative ways to communicate.  Deaf protestors would sign out the window. Giant banners would be unfurled. And members of the Butterfly Brigade, a gay men’s group, smuggled in walkie-talkies.  By the sixth day, food was allowed to be brought in. On day 13, the mayor brought in twenty air-mattresses and hoses with showerheads. This act angered the regional director, who said “we’re not running a hotel here.”

Armed With Support

Businesses like McDonnalds and Goodwill, and groups like the Black Panthers helped provide food.  The Black Panthers hosted an Easter Dinner, containing meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and other dishes wrapped in tinfoil.  Several priests stayed with the protestors and helped where they could, including hosting an Easter service. A rabbi came to lead a Passover seder.  Employees of the building would smuggle food and other supplies to the protestors.

Separate But Still United

On day 12 there were 22 changes proposed and brought to a congressional hearing in the building being occupied.  These changes boiled down to “separate but equal” facilities. Heumann in particular disagreed with this, saying she was done being separate.  Separate only enforces more segregation, and inhibits inclusivity.

A New Era

This protest inadvertently started the modern age of the disability movement.  Protestors went into the sit-in with not much knowledge of other disabilities. The blind only really ever interacted with the blind, the deaf with the deaf, etc.  But the protest had created a mini disability city, where people with different disabilities could learn from each other. Friendships were made, and people found common ground in their second-class citizenship.  People began to accept their disability and learn that it didn’t define them.

On April 28, 1977, Califano caved, not seeing any signs of the protestors leaving.  He signed the bill which included the sought after provisions of Section 504. In addition to this, he signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which he had blocked also.  With the two of these bills being signed, schools were required by law to guarantee equal education for all, not just telecommuting like Roberts received.  This law, allowing disabled children a proper education, would later give rise to a whole new generation of disability activists.

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