Catherine Kudlick, professor of history and director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, delivers the Shriber Lecture, speaking on "Protest as Inspiration, Inspiration as Protest: What Can 150 Disabled People in 1977 Teach Activists Today?"
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Shriber Lecture discusses history of disability activism
March 23, 2017Tweet
The Section 504 Sit-in of 1977 is an often-overlooked story of peaceful protest that gave birth to a national disability rights movement.
“504 showed the nation that disability was a civil right rather than simply a medical-treatment issue,” said Catherine Kudlick, professor of history and director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. “It put a different lens on everything.”
It’s a story that Kudlick shared at the Tenth Annual Shriber Lecture at the Center of Excellence’s Symposium Hall on March 20. Sponsored by the History Department, students and faculty members heard Kudlick discuss “Protest as Inspiration, Inspiration as Protest: What Can 150 Disabled People in 1977 Teach Activists Today?”
“This is completely absent from any history textbook at the high school and college level,” Kudlick said of the protest. “It’s all but absent from history survey lectures, too – despite the fact that according to the latest Census, nearly one in five Americans reported living with a significant disability.”
For 26 days in April 1977, a group of more than 150 people with disabilities – along with their allies – occupied the fourth floor of a federal building in San Francisco. The protest came after Congress approved the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to assist Vietnam War veterans. Section 504 of the act proposed that those with disabilities could not be subjected to discrimination under programs receiving federal financial assistance.
The law still needed to be signed by Joseph Califano, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). This delay angered many disabled people, Kudlick said.
“The disabled activists were (upset) because they had waited three to four years, lobbied and had written letters,” she said. “Carter had become president in January 1977 and said he would support it. Suddenly, his own Health, Education and Welfare official wasn’t so sure.”
Federal officials then ignored an April 4 deadline from the activists, who took to the streets across the nation. They occupied buildings in 10 U.S. cities that housed HEW regional offices. Many were quickly disbanded – but San Francisco was different.
“The Bay Area’s counterculture attracted people who did not fit the role model – student protesters, the LGBT movement,” Kudlick said. “A New York Times story even described Berkeley across the bay as being ‘a mecca for disabled people.’”
The strong outside support even included hot-food deliveries from the Black Panthers.
As activists from different races and classes formed a “mini-city” on the fourth floor, they began to think like activists, Kudlick said.
“Some were seasoned protesters while others had never slept away from home before,” she said. “They bonded over sing-alongs and games and wheelchair races. There was sex and dope. They had a great time, but they were also being political. They learned the skills of being interdependent. For example, a deaf person would hold the phone for an articulate quadriplegic talking to officials.
“There was a sense of purpose and political awakening as everyone waited for one signature from one government official.”
Section 504 was finally signed into law on April 28, 1977. The protesters left the building in triumph.
“Disabled people felt real pride,” Kudlick said. “Once you were in that setting, you were never the same.”
Neither was America, as the Rehabilitation Act and the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act increased accessibility both inside and outside.
“Every single one of you was touched by these events today because any accessible space you have entered – any classroom – is a direct result of (the protest),” she said.
For Kudlick, who has a vision impairment, the story of the Section 504 sit-in “completely transformed my thinking as a scholar.”
“I was at college only 75 miles away from the events that were taking place at the time of the protest,” she said. “But I chose not to know about it because I was busy hiding from my own disability. So in some ways, you might see my efforts over the past five years as rushing to make up for lost time.”
First, Kudlick helped create an exhibition that placed the protest in the spotlight.
“Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights” took activism “to the next level,” she said, by offering dozens of oral-history interviews and telling stories through themes instead of chronologically. The exhibit, which opened at San Francisco State University in 2015 and is navigable for those who are mobility-impaired, also features a 70-foot mural and “sound poems” and “braille rails” for the visually impaired.
“Patient No More” will be on display this summer at the San Francisco Public Main Library.
“From the beginning, we knew that telling the story needed to be interwoven with innovative forms of access so people with a variety of disabilities could visit and not feel excluded by the experience,” Kudlick said.
Kudlick is also working with her students to tell the Section 504 story online at Wikipedia. She considers the project another form of activism.
“Most students – like most adults – knew zero about disability history,” she said. “This mostly stems from a prevailing belief that disability is a biological condition that happens to a few people rather than something that affects many people. … I told my students: ‘Look, you are making history by writing this.’”
The story of the Section 504 Sit-in has also reached high school students in California who are using it in presentations. Kudlick said she hopes even more people can inspire others in the future.
“Maybe there is a young Catherine Kudlick out there in the next generation who will learn about the story sooner, do the activism sooner and create new forms of activism,” Kudlick said.