Published February 25, 2020
Judith (Judy) Heumann has been front and center throughout the disabled civil rights movement in the 1960s and forwards. She talks about what it was like growing up as a disabled person, from being denied an education, denied access, and denied her teaching license because being in a wheelchair was considered a fire hazard. Judy went on to become one of the leaders of the Section 504 protest—the longest sit-in of American history. This book tells her story in her own words.
Good morning Listen Up readers! This week I am excited to introduce you to Judy Heumann and the Section 504 protest!
Judy holds a very special place in my heart. When I first started learning about the disabled community, disability studies, and relearning what it means to be a disabled person, I came across Judy’s TEDTalk, “Our fight for disability rights—and why we’re not done yet.” As I was listening to her talk about growing up and the protests she participated in, I was overcome with emotion. It was the first time in my life that I heard my history. In school, the disabled civil rights movement was never mentioned. I had no idea how or why I had rights. Judy’s talk was the first time that I heard the names of protesters and the stories of the protests. This history, these stories, are my heritage. And getting that heritage at the age of twenty-two changed my life. Especially as someone who has spent half my life wishing I was dead. I realized that there were thousands of people who fought for me, who thought I was worth fighting for, and they succeeded. Now, I run this blog about disabilities, literature, and culture. I imagine it’s the first step of many I will take in fighting against historical silencing and oppression.
Section 504 was part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It was a tiny section created by a few supportive senators who wanted to sneak in a civil rights provision into the bill. It is important to note that disabled people had been left out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was legal to discriminate against someone with a disability. Businesses didn’t have to accommodate disabled employees or customers. Schools refused to teach disabled children. There were unethical laws such as the “ugly laws” (which outlawed the appearance of a “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed [person], so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” But the worst thing that was going on, society was in complete denial that this discrimination existed. Basically, if you were a person with a disability, you were not seen as a person.
“School is how we pass knowledge, skills, and values on to children–for the good of society. In America, school is considered so important, that, since 1918, it has been compulsory.Being Heumann, page 21
“For everyone except us.”
Section 504 reads “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, as defined in section 7(6), shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It not only acknowledged that discrimination against disabled people existed, but it would force any organization receiving federal funds to become accessible and not discriminate against disabilities. This meant schools, universities, city streets, police stations, hospitals, the government itself—all these things that had been cut off from the disabled community would have to be accessible.
The sneaky tactic worked. The bill passed, but it still needed a signature from the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. When Section 504 was understood, it made a lot of people unhappy. No other civil rights act had involved costs before and people didn’t see why the world needed to be made accessible. In 1977, four years after the bill had passed, the disabled community decided to take action.
“In general, institutions don’t like change because change takes time and can entail costs. In particular, the institutions didn’t see the need for spending resources to adapt their buildings, programs, or classrooms for disabled people. It would be too costly, they argued, an unfair financial burden–and how many disabled people really went to university, or participated in x, y, or z specific activity anyway?Being Heumann, page 80
“Right there was our catch-22: because the country was so inaccessible, disabled people had a hard time getting out and doing things—which made us invisible. So we were easy to discount and ignore. Until institutions were forced to accommodate us we would remain locked out and invisible–and as long as we were locked out and invisible, no one would see our true force and dismiss us.”
Community is a really strong theme throughout this book. In fact, on the first page of her book, Judy says “for any story of changing the world is always the story of many.” The disabled community is very unique because our community isn’t built on blood. For colored people, they have friends and family that share the community experience. Religious groups too. I grew up in a Mormon household and was part of a large Mormon community. But the disabled community isn’t typically bound by blood (granted there are some cases where things like deafness runs in families). We come from every background. Some of us are black, some of us are gay, some of us are Muslim, some of us are atheists—there is no boundary that disability hasn’t crossed. We are the most diverse community on the planet. This intersectional nature of the disabled community played a big role in getting Section 504 signed.
“For too long, we have believed that if we played by the rules and did what we were told, we would be included in the American Dream.Judy’s speech at the Section 504 rally; Being Heumann, page 92
“We have waited too long, made too many compromises, and been too patient.
“We will no longer be patient. There will be no more compromises.
“We will accept no more discrimination.”
Judy and her friends hosted a rally in San Francisco, near the office of Health, Education, and Wellness who was in charge of enforcing Section 504. They decided to march into the building and talk to the Regional Director, Joe Maldonado. Unfortunately, Maldonado had never even heard of Section 504, meaning that the government had zero intention of ever enforcing it. Our rights were such a low propriety that even the people charged with enforcing them didn’t know about them. Judy addressed the crowd behind her, “We need you to stay with us in the building until the government signs the regulations for 504!”
“For people with disabilities, a sleepover is not as simple as tossing some sandwiches and a toothbrush into a backpack. In addition to personal assistance, a fairly high number of us also require various types of daily medications and have things like catheters that need to be changed, or the need to get turned at night to avoid bedsores. Many people of course had come without a personal attendant, any kind of food, or even a toothbrush.”Being Heumann, page 98
Seventy-five protesters committed to staying on the first day. Now, this was a coordinated event. Section 504 rallies and sit-ins were happening around the country in Washington D.C., Boston, Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, and Denver, but the San Francisco protest is the only one the held out. Others were starved or waited out by officials who used tactics such as fake bomb threats, cutting off the power, water, access to food, and communication.
“We were being talked about as if we were a foreign army. The public was stunned. People weren’t used to thinking of us as fighters—when they thought about us at all. And I don’t say that in a bitter way, but in more of an honest way. We were a people who were generally invisible in the daily life of society. I mean, think about it. If you didn’t see us in school, because we weren’t allowed in; or in your place of employment, either because we couldn’t physically access it or because we couldn’t get hired; or on your form of public transportation, because buses and trains weren’t accessible; or in restaurants or theaters, for the same reason—then where in your everyday life would you have seen us?”Being Heumann, page 103
So why was the San Francisco sit-in successful? The truth is that it wouldn’t have been successful without the help of other minority communities. For example, when government officials cut off access to food, the Black Panthers fought their way past security to bring food and mattresses every single day. This was an incredible sacrifice on their part since they didn’t have a whole lot of funding, but here they were dedicating time, money, and resources for a cause that wasn’t their own. When asked why they replied “You’re fighting to make the world a better place. That’s what our goal is too.”
In addition, there was a local church group that held an ongoing vigil outside the HEW building. Since the protesters couldn’t be seen in the building, having a vigil outside gave news crews something to film and talk about, while bringing awareness to the importance of getting Section 504 signed.
At last, Judy and the other protest leaders were invited to meet in Washington D.C. with various senators to put pressure on Joseph Califano (the current Secretary of HEW) and President Carter to sign Section 504. On Thursday afternoon, April 28, Section 504 was signed and the news spread the next day. On the morning of April 30, well over a hundred protesters walked out of San Francisco’s HEW office.
“I was told there was jubilation on the fourth floor of the San Francisco Federal Building—victorious shouting, hugging, laughter, and, ultimately, crying.Being Heumann, page 147
“Because, as it turned out, people didn’t want to leave the building.
“They’d made friends, had fun, fallen in love, and felt fully free to be themselves. And in the process, something magical had happened. In the cocoon of the building, a metamorphosis had occurred.
“’We all fell in love with each other,’ CeCe Weeks explained to a reporter.
“’I’ve discovered that I count as a person,’ a protester told another reporter.
“’Instead of seeing myself as a weak person, I found my strength reinforced by others like me,’ said another.
“. . . They decided to spend one last night together in the building to celebrate.”
The Section 504 protest remains the longest sit-in of American history, beginning on April 5 and lasting twenty-six days. It marked the beginning of major social change. It also happened to be the first piece of civil rights legislation for disabled people in the world. Section 504 then paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the official bill of rights for disabled people in America, which was another global first. In 2006, an international treaty based on the ADA was adopted, called the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD established civil rights for disabled people by any country that signed it. Currently, the CRPD been signed and ratified in more than 163 countries.
This is how Section 504 changed the world. Disabilities are universal. No matter where you go in the world, or where you are from, no matter what culture you come across, no matter the color of skin or religious practices, you will always find people with disabilities. Section 504 is not the only event Judy talks about in her book. She also talks about the Capitol Crawl and more current events, such as during the Trump administration trying to weaken the power of the ADA. Sadly, disabled civil rights are constantly under fire.
A recent example of this (which is not in Judy’s book): when Covid-19 first hit America, several states began to draft triage legislation for use in the case that hospitals were overrun. This legislation would help to take pressure off the doctors on deciding who could receive care when resources are scarce. The two groups at the bottom of the list for care were 1) people over the age of sixty and 2) people with disabilities. When I learned about this, I was shaken to my core. And I was angry that my government, who is supposed to support and protect my rights, had decided that I, and millions of other people like me, were expendable in a time of crisis. I was terrified of getting sick and being turned away at the hospital for being deaf. And I had no idea how I could raise my voice and fight against that discrimination. When I told my family about what was happening, they didn’t believe me. “Oh, that’s not going to happen,” they said. It’s that denial that ableism exists that has kept disabled people segregated from participating in society for centuries. All of these things combined made me feel invisible and small—like an ant in the wrong place that somebody was trying to crush under their foot.
I am not currently aware of any triage legislation that has been enforced in America during the pandemic. When these first drafts came to light, several independent law agencies across the country took a stand against it, recognizing that it was a violation of civil rights for both the elderly and disabled. But in other parts of the world, this kind of legislation has been and currently is in use.
Ableism is a very serious matter. A life-and-death matter more often than you think it would be. And before you dismiss that, remember that the problems and issues of disabled people have been dismissed time and time again. So listen, listen up to disabilities. We are fighting to be made visible. We are fighting for the recognition that our problems do, in fact, exist and our needs to be addressed because the world so often dismisses us. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world and we are the most underrepresented. Our stories are not being told. America loves the narrative that we are charity cases, weak, rare, and a source of objectified inspiration. But we are not charity cases. We are not rare and we are not weak. We are people with dreams and families and lives. We are people that love doing things, even if we do them differently than you’d expect.
Because, above all else, we are human beings.
Don’t forget to leave a like or a comment below. I love hearing from you guys. Thank you for all the support! Being Heumann is a great read for an overview of disability civil rights movement and learning about the disabled identity.